What is in the contaminated sediment near Brandy Brook and why is it a problem?

Contractors from Land Remediation, Inc. work to remove sediment from Brandy Brook on Monday afternoon. (Enterprise photo — Jesse Adcock)

SARANAC LAKE — The fenced-in lot where the Saranac Lake Gas Company stood nearly a century ago has long lost its gas holders, its purifier and retort, its coal sheds and offices. But the coal tar, the purifier waste, the 27 contaminants of concern identified by the state Department of Environmental Conservation — those remain.

Though there’s less almost every day, thanks to the DEC enacting a plan to remove near 23,000 cubic meters of contaminated sediment from Brandy Brook, which runs through the former gas company site, and Pontiac Bay in Lake Flower, which the brook discharges into. The Superfund site is part of the state’s Inactive Hazardous Waste Disposal Site Program, which identifies, investigates and cleans up sites of consequential hazardous waste.

For many of these hazardous chemicals, multi-generational and long-term studies do not exist for their effects on human health — and these chemicals have been present for more than 100 years in the soil, air and water.

The main categories of hazardous chemicals identified are polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs, and BTEX compounds, an acronym for the chemicals involved: benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene.

“Results from animal studies show that PAHs do not tend to be stored in your body for a long time,” according to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry’s interaction profile for PAHs. “Most PAHs that enter the body leave within a few days, primarily in the feces and urine.”

PAHs are chemicals left behind by the incomplete burning of fossil fuels and garbage. People can absorb PAHs into their bodies just by taking part in mundane activities — like standing near car exhaust, smoking a cigarette, or cooking and eating charcoal-grilled food. According to the ATSDR, studies have shown that people exposed to PAHs, and the other chemicals associated with coal tar, over extended periods can develop cancer.

Additionally, mice fed benzo[a]pyrene, a PAH chemical found at the site, during pregnancy had fertility issues, as did their offspring. These offspring exhibited deformations and decreased body weight.

“Similar effects could occur in people,” the ATSDR states, “but we have no information to show that these effects do occur.”

BTEX compounds are part of a larger umbrella of chemicals — volatile organic compounds — known as VOCs that can easily transition from a solid or liquid state to a gas.

“No studies are available that directly characterize health hazards and dose-response relationships for exposures to ‘whole’ mixtures of BTEX,” according to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry’s interaction profile for BTEX chemicals.

Of these BTEX chemicals, benzene is the most toxic. According to the World Health Organization, there is no safe level of contact with the chemical, and short-term exposure causes nervous system disruptions like headaches and loss of consciousness. In the long term, benzene can cause leukemia, and damage to white and red blood cells.

Fortunately, to be exposed to the majority of these chemicals, one would have to physically set foot on the site.

“Access to the Saranac Lake Gas Co. site, which was the source of contamination, is currently restricted,” wrote New York Department of Health spokesperson Erin Silk. “A community air monitoring plan and other provisions are in place to address the potential for exposure.”

The community air monitoring plan is in place in part because of one of the biggest concerns with these chemicals: soil vapor intrusion. Many of these chemicals are volatile, which means that they can easily become vapor at ambient temperatures. Coal tar or contaminated sediments can release this vapor, which then fills air pockets in dirt and other substrates, “which in turn may move into overlying buildings and affect the indoor air quality,” according to the state DEC risk assessment.

Here in Saranac Lake, that would only be a problem on the former gas company site itself, according to the DEC.

“The inhalation of site-related contaminants due to soil vapor intrusion does not represent a current concern because there are no occupied buildings on the site,” the risk assessment states. “Furthermore, environmental sampling indicates soil vapor intrusion is not a concern for off-site buildings.”

In addition, even though these chemicals can contaminate water, residential areas adjacent to the site are “served by a public water supply that obtains water from a different source not affected by this contamination,” states the DEC assessment.

It is hard to say how and in what capacity Saranac Lake residents around Payeville Road and Lake Flower may have been affected by contaminants since the 19th century. The DEC states in their risk assessment that “people using Pontiac Bay for recreational purposes such as swimming and boating may come into direct contact with site-related contaminants in sediment. People may come in contact with contaminants present in the soils and sediments along Brandy Brook while entering or exiting the shallow creek during recreational activities.”

If you or someone you know has lived on or around Payeville Road, the Saranac Lake Gas Plant, or Brandy Brook and has developed leukemia or another form of cancer, or related health concerns, please contact Jesse Adcock at jadcock@adirondackdailyenterprise.com.