What’s that smell?

Tupper Lake residents complain of strong smell coming from ground-up railroad ties

This machine was in Tupper Lake grinding up old railroad ties into wood chips on the train corridor next to Washington Street last week. This week it is in Saranac Lake. (Provided photo — John Quinn)

TUPPER LAKE — There’s a smell in the Washington Street area of the Junction that’s been irritating some people living in the neighborhood. It’s coming from piles of ground-up railroad ties the state has left behind as it continues construction of a new rail trail between Tupper Lake and Lake Placid.

The state Department of Transportation has contracted the National Salvage and Service Corporation to grind up thousands of the old railroad ties taken up to make way for the new rail trail. Residents are worried about water and air quality, as well as health impacts of smelling the wood, which is soaked in the wood preservative creosote. The DOT says the mounds will be gone soon, and the state Department of Environmental Conservation says it does not anticipate any negative environmental impacts.

DOT Public Information Officer Michael Flick said the salvageable ties are being reused elsewhere on the railroad from Tupper Lake to Remsen. The rest are being ground up into wood chips and shipped to landfills.

“Can’t open my windows”

These piles of ground-up railroad ties are 10 feet tall, almost as wide as the former train corridor in Tupper Lake and are around a quarter-mile long. The smell coming off of them has been bugging residents living near the piles. (Enterprise photo — Aaron Cerbone)

Multiple residents of Tupper Lake have either said the smell coming from the piles is impacting their daily lives, or have expressed concern that there might be health effects from smelling the debris, which is soaked in creosote.

“I can’t open my windows. I can’t hang out outside,” said Kasey Kentile, who lives on Washington Street. “It’s uninhabitable.”

Kentile lives directly across from the grinding. She said for two weeks her house has been at the “epicenter” of the stench.

Kentile and her partner have been taking their dogs out to their camp to sleep at night because the dogs were hacking and coughing. She took them to the veterinarian and they were prescribed the steroid prednisone.

She said the smell is like mothballs.

She can’t even escape the smell at work. It lingers on her clothes.

“I don’t know what to do,” she said. “They need to go grind somewhere else.”

The smell hasn’t bothered everyone in the neighborhood though. A few residents who did not want to be named said they noticed the smell but were not concerned by it. They said the worst of it is over and the chips will be removed soon.

Mackenzie Boushie is 14 weeks pregnant and has two young children.

Boushie lives at the corner of Washington Street and Coney Beach Avenue and said she’s worried about the health effects of the creosote smell in the air. She has a 6-year-old and 4-year-old who both enjoy playing outside. In the last week, they haven’t been able to be outside because of the smell.

Boushie said it smells like sticking her head into a bag of mothballs. It gets worse when it rains, she said.

Village Trustee Ron LaScala said he’s been getting calls from residents wondering if the smell is coming from the village’s sewage treatment plant. After hearing several complaints about the smell coming from the piles, town Councilman John Quinn emailed the DEC, asking it to stop the grinding and remediate any of the possible health and environmental impacts.

Piles to be hauled away

The chips are mounded in piles 10 feet tall, almost as wide as the rail corridor and nearly a quarter-mile long. The work site is surrounded by neighborhoods.

Standing next to them, there is a pungent, sickly sweet smell. It’s medicine-like and stings the nose after a minute or two.

Grinding finished earlier this week and the grinder was taken off-site on Tuesday. On Wednesday morning, crews were grinding ties in Saranac Lake near Cedar Street.

Flick said the chips will be hauled to a landfill starting today. Disposal is expected to be complete in about a week.

“In general, landfills will not accept this material unless it is ground,” he wrote.

Quinn wondered why the ties were not ground directly into dump trucks.

“It should have never been there in the first place,” he said of the piles, calling the grinding in a residential area “foolish.”

The DOT says this work is allowed to happen.

“Such processing, if done on the site … is an exempt activity and therefore compliant with solid waste regulations,” Flick wrote in an email.

Some locals have expressed concern that the smell will stick around and that the creosotes might be seeping into the ground in the meantime.

“The smell of the preservatives (which are likely carcinogenic) is overpowering and, I believe, is creating a public health hazard,” Quinn wrote in his email to the DEC. “In addition, the processed materials are being exposed to rains that are likely leaching the preservatives into groundwater and, possibly, nearby surface waters and wetlands.”

Quinn said he is an “ardent supporter” of the project. Though he wishes the state would have taken up the whole rail line, he is excited for the rail and trail to meet in Tupper Lake.

But he said he doubts this work is being done in an environmentally responsible way.

“DEC does not expect significant environmental impacts due to the short duration of the rail tie grinding project,” DEC spokesperson Maureen Wren wrote in an email.


The railroad ties have creosote in them.

Creosote is created by distilling tar from wood or coal. Coal creosote is used in railroad ties to protect the wood from termites and fungi decay.

Boushie said she’s been looking into the potential health effects of creosote and she’s not worried about herself, but she’s worried about her children. She keeps reading about worst-case scenarios — creosote is possibly carcinogenic and might cause birth defects.

“If it’s OK and this is how it’s supposed to be done, then maybe have someone tell us that who knows what they’re talking about,” Boushie said. “If it’s education we need, then give it to us.”

She said no one from the state warned the residents about the chipping.

It is unclear how extensive the exposure, if any, there is when creosote-soaked wood is chipped and the smell is in the air.

There are mixed results on if creosotes are carcinogenic but long-term exposure on the skin has been shown to be associated with skin and testicular cancers, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Direct contact with large amounts of creosotes can cause irritation on the skin. Ingestion can cause internal damage to organs. Sensitive areas of the body, like eyes, can experience chemical burns when in direct contact.

No negative effects have been reported for children exposed to creosote before birth, but lab animals have shows birth defects when exposed in utero, according to the CDC.


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