GLOVERSVILLE — The city has won a federal grant to help deal with the unsightly and often toxic legacy of the vanished industry that once was its economic lifeblood.
It is only the first step in what is likely to be a lengthy and expensive process that won’t fix every eyesore or clean up all the contaminated former leather tanneries. But it is an important and welcome first step, local officials said.
“This is really a watershed for the city of Gloversville,” Mayor Vincent DeSantis said. “It’s the first time that we’re able to actually start this process in an orderly way of remediating these sites.”
Pete Lopez, a longtime Schoharie County official and assemblyman who is now the regional administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, visited the city Wednesday afternoon to announce the $300,000 Brownfields Assessment Grant, one of 149 such awards made nationwide. In upstate New York, Marcellus, Solvay and Syracuse also were chosen for the grants.
Lopez spoke as someone who’s spent his whole life in rural upstate communities and is familiar with the challenges that face them.
“I know that the work in Gloversville is from the heart, it’s ongoing, it’s a challenge that will not be solved in one year or two years or three years, it’s an ongoing obligation, and a challenge that all of you have taken on because you love the community,” he said. “This is an opportunity for us to take contaminated sites and turn them into assets that attract jobs, that provide economic outcomes.”
A brownfield is a site where industrial activity has ceased, that may be cluttered with dilapidated structures or contaminated with hazardous substances left behind when the industrial user pulled out.
Gloversville is a target-rich environment. One after another, dozens of tanneries and leather processing plants there closed down in the mid to late 20th century. Some buildings were put to other uses, some were left vacant and rotted, some burned down.
Officials plan to assess 10 sites in the city. One of the most obvious candidates is the old Traditions Leather facility on West 11th Avenue. Not only was it gutted by fire in February 2018, the charred ruins literally straddle the Cayadutta Creek and sit just down the street from Kingsborough Elementary School.
Like most cities that never developed a strong economic replacement when their signature industry collapsed, Gloversville can’t afford to clean up its brownfields on its own. The EPA grant will help the city secure funding from other sources.
City officials and EPA administrators are targeting sites on the city’s southern gateway and along the Cayadutta Creek, which the leather industry during its heyday turned into a vile, toxic sewer that ran different colors on different days.
Geologist Phil Clappin, technical leader of EPA Region 2's brownfield section, said the first step will be to get an inventory of brownfield sites in town, then prioritize their cleanup with public input.
“You’ve got plenty of sites to choose from, so let’s do the ones that the public wants to get done first, and would be an economic driver for the community and also protect public health.”
Once the 10 sites are selected, the EPA will determine what hazardous substances are present in the soil, groundwater and structures at each one, using the technical capabilities of the EPA lab in Edison, New Jersey.
Then EPA can determine whether additional investigation is needed or prepare a cleanup plan for each site.
That’s as far as the funding goes — it is an assessment grant, not a cleanup grant. Cleanup will take much longer and cost much more than $300,000.
However, DeSantis said, having a list of priority sites and a comprehensive understanding of what needs to be done to each of them makes it easier to secure funding to do that work.
Lopez said that former site owners can be forced to pay for cleanup, if they can be identified and located decades later. If not, federal taxpayers may pick up the tab for certain cleanups, or city or private funds may be needed.
He noted that many of the brownfield assessment grants are going to areas that are also Opportunity Zones, such as Gloversville. The Opportunity Zone program offers tax breaks to encourage private investment in Census tracts with elevated poverty rates.
Blight is the most serious of the obstacles to Gloversville’s revitalization, DeSantis said.
“You have all these sites that were the source of our prosperity at one time become great liabilities and they cast kind of a shadow over the neighborhoods they’re in,” he said.
“This is the fact-finding stage of this but after the facts are found and the data known, we are in a position to apply for major remediation. This is kind of a springboard to much more.”