WATERTOWN — Depending on the wind’s direction, Arthur Kiblin can smell motor oil from his yard on Ives Street Road in the town of Watertown.
Mr. Kiblin and his wife, Celeste, are among seven neighbors living near the former Kellner Salvage Yard at 17128 Ives Street Road, a slender, 6-acre site that contains a condemned one-story building, a pile of tires reaching 15 feet high, an area that appears to contain oil or fuel, and discarded metal and other debris.
Walking through the site earlier this week, Mr. Kiblin, who’s lived next to the site since 1988, insisted that he sees and hears people going onto the property during all hours of the night.
“Who knows what they’re doing?” he said. “I don’t know.”
The property operated as a junkyard for decades under the ownership of Leland G. “Squeaky” Kellner until he died in 1994 and his son, Carlisle W. Kellner, took it over. Since then, neighbors periodically have complained to town officials about illegal dumping and burning. On at least one occasion, the state Department of Environmental Conservation issued a ticket for burning commercial material.
In 2000, they also complained that Mr. Kellner’s house on the property did not have a functioning septic tank and raw sewage was escaping into the neighborhood.
The son eventually was forced to move from the house. He abandoned the salvage yard after relocating to Tennessee. He could not be reached for comment.
When the property appeared on Jefferson County’s foreclosure list this spring, neighbors became worried that someone would buy the now-defunct junkyard during a public auction. A couple of unidentified men showed up at the property about a month ago saying they hoped to pick the property up for maybe $5,000.
But the county attorney’s office pulled the property from the list, citing the potential environmental risks. Earlier this week, County Attorney David J. Paulsen said the county was unaware whether the junkyard was still operating, only that Mr. Kellner owes $5,262 in back taxes. The property remains in his hands.
Its future is unclear.
Citing it as an environmental risk for the county, Mr. Paulsen concluded it’s an issue for the state Department of Environmental Conservation or the town’s code enforcement Office. The county could complete the first phase of an environmental study, but that would be all, he said.
Supervisor Joel R. Bartlett recently told the neighbors that the town was aware of the situation, but there’s not much that can be done.
He also told them that the property no longer can be used as a junkyard because it has been several years since it has operated as one and has reverted to residential zoning.
The town, too, does not want to become financially liable for a cleanup, he said. Mr. Kellner is legally responsible for that, Mr. Bartlett said.
DEC spokesman Stephen W. Litwhiler said the department currently does not have an active file on the property. If people have concerns, he suggested they should call DEC.
Mrs. Kiblin said they have. They showed DEC officials photos and video of people burying items on the site. They were promised that DEC would send someone to investigate, but that never happened, she said.
“They told us you can’t get blood out of a stone,” she said.
After hearing about those comments, Mr. Litwhiler said DEC did take legal action against Mr. Kellner to clean up the property. In 2009, the property was cleared of any tires on the site. A large pile of tires now are located in the center of the property.
Mrs. Kiblin’s brother, James Davis, who also lives next door to the site, believes people continue to use the property as a dump.
Several years ago, Wayne S. Jahada, owner of Watertown Iron & Metal, claimed he got permission from Mr. Kellner to run the junkyard, Mr. Davis said. Yet there was never any proof that he had the legal right to be on the property, he said.
At one point, Mr. Jahada supervised the burial of automotive parts and fuel, Mr. Davis said. He took photos of the activity. Mr. Jahada since has moved to Georgia and could not be reached for comment.
Mrs. Kiblin recalled one incident in which two men were on the property and cut up an 18-wheel tractor-trailer into pieces. They dumped the petroleum from its fuel tanks and hauled the metal scraps away, she said. They also burned the truck’s remnants.
Mr. Kiblin said he knows where the potential contaminants are buried. He knelt down near some brush, poked his index finger into the ground and squished some moist dark gray soil between his finger and thumb.
“That’s not rain water,” he said. “That’s oil that was buried here.”
Walking back to his yard, he looked about 100 yards down the road and pointed out how close Mill Creek is to the site. He wondered what might be in the creek and whether any contaminants could end up on farms downstream.
If nothing else, neighbors would like officials to make sure no one can dump on the site, he said.