COLONIE — An epilogue may finally be written on one of the largest environmental cleanups in Capital Region history: The federal government is trying to auction off the former National Lead factory site on Central Avenue.
Despite what the name suggests, the contaminant of greatest concern is depleted uranium, not lead. The facility at the Albany border was contaminated with microscopic particles of depleted uranium (DU) to the extent that former employees were still excreting it in their urine 30-plus years after shutdown.
Over the course of three decades, the U.S. Department of Energy and then the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers spent roughly $190 million cleaning the 11.3 acres sufficiently to be declared safe for reuse.
The U.S. General Services Administration opened online bidding Dec. 27, with a minimum $300,000 bid and a warning that the property is offered as is with no guarantee of its condition, though it warrants it will clean up any additional hazardous materials discovered on site.
Industrial activity at 1130 Central Ave. began in 1923 with a factory that made wooden items including toys, according to a Department of Energy fact sheet. In 1927 it was converted to a brass foundry supplying the railroad industry, and in 1937 National Lead Industries bought the facility to use as an electroplating shop.
NL Industries manufactured items of uranium and thorium there from 1958 to 1968.
In 1968, NL began making shielding materials, internal counterweights for aircraft and munitions from depleted uranium, which is valued for those purposes because of its highly dense composition.
In 1984, the Colonie factory was shut down under court order because of the DU it was spewing from its exhaust stacks. Over the course of the factory’s operation, an estimated 11,000 pounds of DU oxide in microscopic form was spread through the buildings and grounds of the plant complex and onto 56 nearby commercial and residential properties.
NL Industries also dumped contaminated casting sand in a nearby lake. Other contamination on site included enriched uranium, volatile organic compounds, radionuclides and heavy metals.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rates the weak alpha-particle radiation that DU emits as not a serious health risk on the skin but a serious toxic threat if ingested or inhaled.
Residents living near the NL site had long complained of increased incidence of illness and cancer, and formed Community Concerned About NL Industries to ensure their interests were included in the cleanup.
A study of a small number of neighbors and former employees showed evidence of contamination with both depleted and enriched uranium, most likely through inhalation of particles.
Later, a larger test was undertaken by state Department of Health researchers in 2012.
The scientists analyzed the urine of a group of 32 former workers and 99 residents for various forms of uranium.
More than three decades after the plant emissions halted, depleted uranium was present in 84% of the former workers and enriched uranium in 9%, while 8% of the residents showed exposure to depleted uranium and none to enriched uranium.
Total uranium in the residents’ urine was actually lower than the national mean, possibly due to differences in drinking water. The workers, however, showed markedly higher levels of total uranium.
Cleanup included the removal of 135,000 cubic yards of contaminated soil and groundwater monitoring.
Three small sites totaling 9,387 square feet close to utility infrastructure could not be fully cleaned. They remain contaminated with heavy metals and a future owner will be restricted in what can be done there. The rest of the site, the groundwater below it and nearby properties have been determined to be clear of radioactive material to the level in the cleanup specifications.
The site is now considered suitable for commercial or restricted residential use.
In September 2019, the land was turned over to the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Legacy Management, which said it would transfer the site to a public, private or nonprofit entity at the earliest opportunity.
Colonie Director of Planning and Development Sean Maguire said the town has looked at the possibility of extending Railroad Avenue through the NL site to Central Avenue at Osborne Road to improve access to the commercial/light industrial zone along its southern border.
The town has not studied potential reuse of the site itself, nor gauged private-sector interest.
“They can be tricky to redevelop,” he said.
As of Friday, no bids had been submitted on the site.
The federal auction comes amid a flurry of activity at other major contamination sites within the town of Colonie:
MEAT PLANT: One of the most prominent eyesores in the Capital Region, the old First Prize meat packing plant along Interstate 90, is demolished — except for the tallest, most visible part.
Developer Richbell Capital said Thursday that the demo should take another three months. Then a specially created Albany-Colonie Planning Board will consider Richbell’s proposal for the site straddling the city-town border: a primarily multifamily development, with limited non-residential elements to enhance the residential elements and boost it overall.
This is a significant shift away from the original plan, which favored retail and restaurant space, demand for which has suffered in the pandemic.
If approvals are received as anticipated, and if COVID doesn’t cause further disruption in the real estate market, Richbell hopes to break ground before the end of 2022.
RAILYARD: Luizzi Companies is redeveloping the former Delaware & Hudson railyard behind the Watervliet Arsenal after it sat vacant and contaminated for a generation. It has cleaned up 28 of the 82 acres and built a new headquarters for itself and two warehouses it is now marketing to potential tenants.
Two old railroad shop buildings are still standing: Luizzi converted one into a maintenance shop for its vehicles and machine and is considering what can be done with the other. Along with those two buildings, the railyard’s toxic legacy remains in the ground on 54 acres. Luizzi is working with the state to bring the remaining acreage into the Department of Environmental Conservation’s Brownfield Cleanup Program.
The ultimate goal is 550,000 square feet of warehouse space.
STEEL: Across the street, cleanup is underway on the former Al Tech steel mill. The rusted and crumbling buildings are being demolished to allow removal of over 16,000 cubic yards of soil and steam sediment contaminated with PCBs and heavy metals.
Just uphill from the 68-acre main plant is a 31-acre site where the plant dumped its waste, some of it hazardous.
The cost for the State Superfund project was estimated at $16.6 million in 2019, and the end goal is a site that can be put back to industrial use. Cushman & Wakefield/Pyramid Brokerage has begun marketing it as that.
MORE STEEL: Also near the arsenal, the state DEC this month announced the start of cleanup at the former Adirondack Steel site off Watervliet-Shaker Road. The estimated $6 million State Superfund project will entail removal of PCB contamination deemed a significant threat to public health or the environment.
LUMBER: Finally, there’s the old Miron lumber property along Railroad Avenue, which shut down after contamination with wood preservatives. The hulking main lumber shed has been removed and a proposal for a 68,000-square-foot warehouse went before the Guilderland Planning Board last month — the property is a few feet over the Colonie-Guilderland border.