Storm-related spills kept officials busy, worried

When floodwaters tore through Mohawk and Schoharie valley communities after tropical storms Irene an

When floodwaters tore through Mohawk and Schoharie valley communities after tropical storms Irene and Lee blasted the region in late summer, a variety of pollutants were dumped onto the ground and into creeks and rivers.

Fuel oil from hundreds of homes flowed into the Schoharie Creek when tanks and heating systems were dragged from their locations.

The oil mixed with other things, such as 250 gallons of kerosene from a Bridge Street residence, unknown amounts of raw sewage and another 1,550 gallons of gasoline from the Ottman & Enders gas station on Main Street.

The state Department of Environmental Conservation’s spill incidents database lists only an estimate of the amount of material spilled or, in some cases, just states “unknown.” Spills include No. 2 fuel oil from residences, transformer oil from toppled utility poles, kerosene, liquid propane and “unknown substances” found to have spilled into the Schoharie Creek and the Mohawk River.

But despite the spills, officials and scientists say the environmental impacts of Irene and Lee may not prove to be disastrous.


In an email response to questions posed by The Gazette, DEC Region 4 spokesman Rick Georgeson said the quantity of floodwaters — which in many cases exceeded recorded historic totals — helped to mitigate the contamination.

“Much of the pollution resulting from the storms was flushed out,” Georgeson said.

By early November, the DEC had spent roughly $5.9 million responding to more than 1,000 spills throughout the state, and cleanup continues. Crews were able to sop up about 450 gallons of gasoline that spilled at Ottman & Enders on Main Street in Schoharie, Georgeson said.

Working to remediate spills was only part of the task; the DEC was also helping to gather “orphan containers” found days after the flooding, such as 550 gallons of “unknown material” from abandoned drums discovered off of Tidball Road in Delanson.

The smell of fuel filled the air days and even weeks after floodwaters receded from the villages of Schoharie and Middleburgh, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the soils are soaked with fuel, Georgeson said. That odor is likely from hundreds of heating oil tanks that spilled, and residual oil was likely left behind at high water marks.

“This relatively small amount of oil should naturally break down over time by a process of biological degradation,” Georgeson said.

According to John Hassett, a chemistry professor at Syracuse University who studies the impact of lower levels of gasoline in lakes including Lake George, impacts to fish would have been seen quickly after the flooding, with dead fish popping up on the surface of rivers and creeks.

There weren’t any reports of fish kill incidents.

“If they were going to die, they would have,” Hassett said. He said a greater concern for fish populations would be raw sewage in the waters, which depletes oxygen. Gasoline, he said, “goes away pretty quick.”

Another concern, Hassett said, would be the chance for individual residential drinking water wells to become contaminated. The state Health Department referred questions regarding individual residential drinking water wells to the Schoharie County Health Department, which did not respond to calls.


The state Department of Agriculture and Markets has no estimate on what impact contamination might have on crop yields, according to spokesman Michael Moran. In an email he said it’s important to take a “dilution factor” into account when considering the impact of spills during flooding.

Direct impacts are most likely in the immediate vicinity of a spill, Moran said. “The probability of flood-induced contamination of soil declines significantly with distance from the initial contaminant source.”

The department is suggesting anybody concerned with their soil have it tested. Expanded tests can be done to check for heavy metals and hydrocarbons, as well, Moran said, but individuals have to get those tests done on their own.

This year’s floods were somewhat of a repeat disaster for farmers in Montgomery County who had hundreds of acres of riverside fields inundated by the Mohawk River in the summer of 2006. And if that event is any example, it’s possible farmers will be able to go back to their fields in the spring with a bit more work, according to Montgomery County Soil and Water Conservation District Director Corey Nellis. He said he can’t recall any major roadblocks after the 2006 flooding.

“I’m not sure that anybody saw a negative impact the following year. There didn’t seem to be any carryover on our cropland fields that was a concern to our landowners,” he said.

That doesn’t help farmers with the loss of hundreds of acres of crops they suffered after the storms — little if anything flooded could be salvaged, Nellis said.

If any contaminated livestock feed was given to animals after the 2006 flooding, there weren’t reports of animals getting sick or problems with milk, he said.

Many farmers are brush-hogging their flooded corn crops with plans to simply plow the fields back up and replant them.

“Nature has a way of taking care of itself and cleaning itself up,” Nellis said.

Instead of fuel or sewage, farmers will be dealing with “volunteer corn” next spring, Nellis said.

Corn plants that were submerged as high as the ears are, in some cases, already sprouting corn plants out of the ears. Even when chopped down, they will likely sprout more unwanted corn plants because farmers can’t simply spray the fields and kill them.

Many are using “Roundup Ready” corn — a variety that resists the herbicide Roundup, widely used to kill weeds in cornfields.

Water tasting

The Schoharie River Center, with its property along Burtonsville Road inundated by the Schoharie Creek on Aug. 28, began water sampling not long after the flooding, according to an email from director John McKeeby.

In general, he said pH, nitrates and phosphates in the Schoharie Creek were at high levels in the days after the flood but have since come down to pre-flood levels.

Testing also showed a drop in macro-invertebrate populations — tiny, pollution-sensitive creatures that can be used to gauge the health of waters. According to McKeeby, there are signs the creek is already starting to recover.

“Initially, we saw very few macros after the flooding; now we are seeing mayflies coming back and some caddis. We still have seen very few crayfish, which is pretty unusual for the Schoharie,” McKeeby said.

Categories: Schenectady County

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