Site is one of many former gas plants across the state
By Tim Rowland
New York State is entering the home stretch of a Superfund cleanup of a Saranac Lake gas plant that cost $84,000 to build well over a century ago, but before all is said and done will cost in the neighborhood of $15 million to put to rest.
The plant employed what, at the time, was a common and celebrated technology that fired gas streetlights, turning dim nighttime cityscapes into brightly lit modern wonders. The gas was later piped to private homes and businesses, before cheaper natural gas captured from oil wells put them out of business.
The Payeville Lane plant produced gas by heating coal in the presence of steam and spraying it with petroleum to make the gas burn hotter and brighter. The process left behind a witch’s brew of tar and cancer-causing chemicals like benzene that accumulated in below-grade pits.
Vast amounts of water were required to produce the steam, so the plants were usually located by rivers or lakes, and the plant built by the Saranac Lake Gas Co. on a tributary of Lake Flower’s Pontiac Bay was no different.
The obvious problem is that these pollutants almost immediately began to ooze into the water itself, threatening the ecology and public health. A second problem is that land use changed. The gasification plant was out of business by the 1940s, and the industrial neighborhood was replaced by homes and recreational fields owned by North Country Community College.
Also running alongside the property is the railroad slated to become a rail trail within the next couple of years. All told, the contamination was designated by the state as a Class 2 inactive hazardous waste disposal site, indicating a “significant threat” to public health and the environment. So cleanup became imperative.
“The State Departments of Environmental Conservation and Health are strictly overseeing the comprehensive cleanup of the Saranac Lake Former Manufactured Gas Plant Site in the village of Saranac Lake,” said the DEC’s Kevin Frazier in an email. “Cleanup activities, which include in-situ (i.e. in place) solidification of contaminated soils at the site, are being conducted under the State Superfund Program, subject to strict safety standards to protect public health and the environment.”
Planning began in 2015, with the first phase — the dredging of contaminants from Pontiac Bay — commencing in 2018. The current project, remediating the ground at the site of the plant itself, is expected to be completed this year, with final grading and landscaping happening in the spring of 2022.
According to the DEC, surface soil at the site has been removed and either saved or disposed of, depending on the level of contamination. Augers then drill into the subsoils and cement is churned into the ground to act as a binding agent to lock pollutants in place.
A widespread problem
The remediation process is well tested due to the proliferation of similar plants across the state. The high numbers of Manufactured Gas Plants — almost every community of any size had one — in New York became apparent in the 1990s, and as time passed the extent of the risks they presented became more apparent, according to the DEC.
By 2000, it became apparent that limited, spot cleanups would be inadequate, and the DEC beefed up its staff and investigations looking into the problem. Today, more than 200 sites statewide have been slated with cleanup, the costs being recovered from utility companies where possible. It’s believed there may be 100 more, but a number are long gone and new developments have been built over top of the old sites.
Gas production in Saranac Lake dated to the late 1800s, although records from Historic Saranac Lake indicate The Saranac Lake Gas Co. was incorporated and a new plant built in 1909.
American Gas Light Journal raved about the plant in 1909, praising its architecture, which was “coming in for considerable favorable comment by the citizens.” Of the town’s 6,000 residents, 500 signed up for gas, and newspaper ads boasted about gas ranges, which, unlike coal or wood stoves, could be switched on and off.
But the honeymoon was a short one. Within a year there were complaints that oil and coal tars were seeping into Lake Flower by way of Brandy Brook. A Malone newspaper reported “the scum on Lake Flower has become so thick that Game Protector Vosburgh has stated that if the nuisance is not abated by the board of health he will take the matter up with the forest, fish and game commissioner.”
The plant was also subject to fires and explosions, and was never a financial success. The company was bankrupt by 1919. The business was reorganized and the plant improved upon, but bottled gas was cheaper and in 1943 the plant closed for good.