The state is preparing to clean up a vacant parking lot on South Ferry Street near downtown Schenectady after sampling at the site found hazardous waste containing at least one known carcinogen in the soil and groundwater.
The contamination was first discovered in 2007 when local officials and BBL Construction Services were considering the site at 222 S. Ferry St. for Schenectady County Community College dorms, a state Department of Environmental Conservation spokesman said. A preliminary environmental assessment was completed at the site to identify any potential contamination liabilities and the results showed high enough levels of contamination to warrant further investigation and cleanup.
But when officials announced the next year that the dorm project would be relocating closer to the college, the reason they gave had nothing to do with environmental concerns at the one-acre site. Rather, they said so many students wanted to live in the dorms that they decided to go with a bigger site.
Schenectady Metroplex Development Authority Chairman Ray Gillen said the developer realized the extent of the cleanup required would be burdensome, so when another site closer to the college became available, they decided to relocate it there. The project was eventually completed by another developer altogether — United Group of Companies from Troy.
“People were aware that this site had some environmental concerns,” Gillen said. “A number of people have looked at it over the years, but nothing has ever come of it. This is a positive if the state is coming in to clean it up, because then it would become a shovel-ready site for development.”
The site as it stands today is a vacant, asphalt-paved parking lot bounded by South Ferry Street on the east and Church Street on the west. A 4-foot-high chain-link fence surrounds the perimeter.
Historically, the site was home to a trucking facility that included a paint shop, repair shop and portions of a truck garage. Solvents may have been used to prepare vehicles for painting and to clean floors, according to a DEC site assessment. To the north and south is a mixture of vacant land, commercial and residential property. To the north, 209 and 211 S. Church St. housed a paint and varnish removal factory called Hi Test Solvent Co. and dry cleaning operations. To the south, property once housed a color copier, photo lab and glove manufacturer.
DEC believes the contamination discovered in 2007 may be traced back to any one of these operations. DEC did its own sampling last year and found contamination in the soil, groundwater and soil vapor. It included unknown quantities of cis-1,2-dichloroethene, which may cause liver problems; trichloroethene, a possible carcinogen; and vinyl chloride, a known carcinogen.
Additional investigation is needed to identify the nature and extent of the contamination, DEC said. On Wednesday, the site was officially added to the State Superfund Program, which allows for a thorough investigation and state-funded cleanup of sites identified as possible threats to the public or environment.
A DEC spokesman said the agency has tried for years, to no avail, to get the property owner to clean up the property. In many cases, he said, property owners of contaminated sites feel they should not shoulder the financial responsibility of a cleanup when they weren’t the ones responsible for the contamination. In such cases, when it becomes clear the owner won’t undertake a cleanup, the state will step in.
Reza Mahoutchian, who has owned the property in one form or another since 2005, objects to DEC’s characterization of the site and his willingness to cooperate. Mahoutchian is responsible for a number of property renovations around Schenectady, including many of the restaurants along lower Union Street.
He bought the property on South Ferry Street without any knowledge that it was contaminated in 2005 from Citizen’s Bank and Trust, who bought it in 2001 from Albert Lawrence just two months before he died.
“That’s a lie,” Mahoutchian said, when asked whether he refused to work with DEC on cleaning up the property. “It’s an inaccurate statement, and it’s not fair.”
Mahoutchian said that back when the lot was being considered for dorms, the developer hired a contractor who entered the property without his permission and conducted an environmental assessment.
“For all we know, they sabotaged the property,” he said.
He later hired a firm on his own to perform an environmental assessment, which did find elevated levels of contamination. The plan, he said, was to apply to the Brownfields Cleanup Program. This would be in the public’s best interest, he said, since it uses a mix of private funding and public tax credits to remediate contaminated property.
He said that on May 22, the DEC sent him a letter informing him of its intention to include the site in the State Superfund Program, giving him two weeks to respond.
“For six years they didn’t do anything about this, they just sat on it,” he said. “And all of a sudden they give me two weeks to respond.”
He responded this week with a letter contesting the classification of the site as one that “constitutes a significant threat to public health or the environment,” arguing that the mere presence of contaminants at a site “is not a sufficient basis” for that classification. His letter also provided a completed Brownfields Cleanup Programs pre-application worksheet, which he requested they allow to proceed.
On the worksheet, Mahoutchian said he does not yet know how much investigation and remediation would cost. If a full remediation of the one-acre parcel was needed, more than 12,000 cubic yards of material may need to be removed and replaced with clean fill.