STAR LAKE — Oil was so cheap when Jones & Laughlin Steel Corp. was at its heyday in the 1950s that the company paid little mind to what it was losing through probable leaks in underground pipes that funneled the oil from above-ground storage tanks to a processor.
“What they lost was negligible to them,” said Gary P. McCullouch, state Department of Environmental Conservation regional spill engineer. “Over time, it was a lot of oil.”
By the 1970s, the plant’s operations diminished, and it ultimately shut down in 1978.
A decade later, DEC learned of an oil spill in the Little River, a tributary of the Oswegatchie River.
“The river was coated in oil,” Mr. McCullouch told more than 60 people gathered Thursday at the community center in Star Lake to hear an update on the cleanup, which has been taken over by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
DEC traced the spill to multiple sources on J&L’s 54-acre property. In 1994, DEC installed a 1,500-foot-long curtain wall to block the river, which was reasonably successful, but the ground remained saturated. What oil it collected was burned to the tune of 800 to 1,000 gallons per week in a diesel generator for power at the site. DEC has removed about 350,000 gallons of oil from the ground.
“We’ve done that on a shoestring budget,” Mr. McCullouch said. “Now we’ve got the feds to really put some horsepower into the site.”
DEC has spent nearly $3 million on the site and recovered about $1 million from those responsible.
Cleanup of the site has become a community focus with residents wanting the buildings razed and the property, one of a handful zoned industrial in the Adirondack Park, available for reuse.
Earlier this year, St. Lawrence County, armed with a release of liability from the state, took title, allowing it to carve off 18 acres from the parcel in the town of Clifton so it can be redeveloped. The rest of the property has become an EPA project.
“The EPA’s objective is to clean it up, no matter how long it takes. We go until we don’t find any more,” said Michael F. Solecki, the on-scene coordinator for the EPA. “When we leave, it’s going to be a neutral site.”
He had no time frame on how long the cleanup might take.
So far, the EPA has spent about $750,000 in preparations, including electromagnetic readings that may show where the oil is.
Much of the oil in the water is believed trapped in an old bog. The EPA might make use of 50 wells installed previously by DEC. It could change the direction of the groundwater so it tilts to a particular spot where it can be sucked up. Crews are pulling back the stream to see the impact on the bottom of the river, which may be temporarily rerouted so sediment can be replaced.
So far, the bulk of the contamination found is oil and material used to run machines.
“We look for other things,” Mr. Solecki said. “We looked for PCBs in the water. We didn’t find any.”
The buildings may be sandblasted of lead paint and stripped of asbestos and chemicals but they will be torn down by the EPA only if that is the only way contaminants can be properly removed.
“It’s a loophole,” Mr. Solecki said. “But I cannot promise the buildings will go away.”
Most likely, the buildings, primarily made of concrete block, will fall to the community to remove, possibly with the help of an Empire State Development grant. At the point the EPA is finished with the buildings, the blocks could go to a landfill or be recycled.
County ownership of the property was another step toward its redevelopment.
The next phase will be just as important, to hand over ownership to a local development corporation set up through the county Industrial Development Agency, Legislator Frederick S. Morrill, D-DeKalb Junction, said.
“The county needed to own it,” he said. “The county doesn’t want to own it.”