The big dig

Pontiac Bay sheds the tons in Superfund clean-up

Inside of the Pontiac Bay Superfund "sprung structure" sediment from the bottom of the bay dries in a Portland cement mixture and is loading into trucks destined for the landfill. (Enterprise photo - Aaron Cerbone)

SARANAC LAKE — The Pontiac Bay Superfund dredging project is on track to wrap up by early September, according to state Department of Environmental Conservation spokesman David Winchell.

The $8.5 million project is taking more than 15,000 cubic yards of contaminated sediment out of the bay — as well as 6,000 cubic yards from the source location on Brandy Brook — in the interest of public health, and accommodating the proposed hotel planned on the nearby shore where the Lake Flower Inn, Adirondack Motel and Lake Side Motel currently sit vacant.

More than 15 trucks a day pull through the 50-foot “sprung structure” on the shore of Lake Flower, filling up trailers with benzene, toluene, xylene and ethylbenzene, among other chemical byproducts of the coal fire plant that from the 1800s to the 1950s provided light and heat to Saranac Lake from up the hill, between Payeville Lane and the lake.

Each truck carries around 35 tons of material, which means the bay loses around 525 tons a day, according to Remedial Board Director of the DEC Division of Environmental Remediation Mike Cruden. One cubic yard of sediment weighs between 1 and 1.5 tons , making the total weight loss of the site somewhere around 15,000 and 20,000 tons, or 2,000 to 3,000 elephants.

The 76,000-square-foot underwater area — 19,000 more than the area of a football field — is being dug down 7.5 feet, the depth set by earlier DEC tests for how pervasive the chemicals are.

Logs drawn from the bottom of Lake Flower in the Pontiac Bay dredging project are being investigated by the Department of Environmental Conservation to see which logging company they once belonged to. (Enterprise photo - Aaron Cerbone)

The chemicals mostly bind to sediment, but benzene, a carcinogen, dissolves in water. On occasions when the chemicals are stirred up and bind to the water, the area — visible by a colorful sheen — is sprayed with a biosalve. The work site is surrounded by absorbent booms made from polypropylene, which absorbs oils but not water.

When the project is completed, the DEC will take confirmatory samples to see if they have achieved clean sediment and water.

Originally, the DEC’s 2015 plan for the site was to isolate and dewater 76,000 square feet of Pontiac Bay to excavate the soil, but due to the cost and the disruption to the community, it was decided that the soil would be removed by crane. The crane, sitting on a floating platform, pulls sediment out of lake bed and puts it in a barge. The barge is floated into the sprung structure where another crane adds the wet sediment to a pile and mixes it with Portland cement to dry it out. The cement and sediment mixture dries as it moves backward toward the entrance, is craned into a truck and transported to the Clinton County Landfill or the Waste Management Green Ridge Regional Disposal Facility in Saratoga County.

Inside the tent, which is there to reduce dust and smell for the public, is an air filtration system cutting down on the dust created by the cement. The cement binds up free water, ensuring no toxic liquid leaks from the trucks as they take their loads to the dump.

Cruden said the only chemicals are in the tent or at the dump.

A crane sitting on a floating barge and designed to lift soil from the bottom of Pontiac Bay carries a rock out of the shoreline. (Enterprise photo - Aaron Cerbone)

Residents have noticed a smell and sheen on the water of the river behind the Little Italy restaurant, under the Mayor Frank Ratigan Memorial Bridge. This is not caused by the dredging project leaking chemicals, Cruden and Winchell said; it is a site they have known about for around 20 years that has been sampled and meets safety standards.

“That sheen and the odors down by Little Italy are not related to this site at all,” Winchell said. “There used to be a lot of marinas and gas stations along Lake Flower Avenue.”

Winchell said the DEC has searched unsuccessfully for a source of the smell and sheen, and to remedy it would require digging up Main and River streets. Since it is not a priority and does not pose a risk, it is unlikely the department will do that.

The Pontiac Bay project is paid for through a $100 million annual state Superfund for cleaning up hazardous waste disposal sites. Cruden said most of the cost for the project is construction costs: subcontracting drivers and using cranes. According to Winchell, there are on average around 15 people on site.

When the responsible parties are identified in these disposal sites, they are under consent orders to pay for the cleaning themselves, but, like in this case, if the companies no longer exist, the state pays for it. Winchell said this is the only coal fire dredging project in the Adirondacks and one of three in DEC’s Region 5.

A crane loads dried sediment from the bottom of Pontiac Bay, mixed with Portland cement, into a truck which carries the chemical-laden soil to a landfill. (Enterprise photo - Aaron Cerbone)

The DEC became aware of the contamination during a petroleum spill in the early 1990s but is remedying it now on a expedited schedule on the village’s request. The original plan took two seasons and closed the boat launch. The new plan allows for the Winter Carnival’s Ice Palace to be constructed on the site as usual.

“There might be some finish work left, but you’ll be able to use it for the Ice Palace,” Cruden said.

The DEC will also regrade the site to make it more level.

After the dredging is finished, the site will be backfilled with approximately the same amount of sediment that was removed, according to Winchell, who said that restoration should take them into November to finish.

The second site on Brandy Brook started last week, following the train tracks along the brook toward the original site of the coal fire factory. The actual factory site does not yet have a final plan or end date, as it is not a priority, Winchell said.

A crane dumps contaminated soil from Brandy Brook into a truck on the railroad tracks. This was the site of the original coal fire plant that contaminated the brook and Pontiac Bay with a concoction of chemicals. (Enterprise photo - Aaron Cerbone)

The brook is lined by PVC pipes stuck in the ground that are soaking up the water, creating a wall of dry dirt on either side, which is then removed by crane. Similar work will also take place in the ditch on the side of the road across from Pendragon Theatre, where the chemicals traveled to Pontiac Bay.

As part of the extraction process, a coal tar byproduct was formed and held in leaky gas holders leaching into the soil and groundwater. Winchell said he believes it may have also been piped directly into Brandy Brook and flowed into Pontiac Bay.

Cruden said during the course of the dredging, crane operators unearthed hand-cut logs with markings that may have been floated downstream toward a mill on the shore. Winchell said the DEC is working with the Adirondack Experience museum in Blue Mountain Lake to identify which logging company they might belong to.