By Tim Rowland
In 1810, a team of surveyors scouting a military road in St. Lawrence County noted a point where the needles on their compass began to tremble in bizarre fashion. Thirty years later, geologist Ebenezer Emmons explained why. A thick slab of valuable magnetic iron ore, up to 80 percent pure, appeared above the ground, stretching for two and a half miles just east of present-day Star Lake.
Throughout the century, many men fantasized about the potential profit represented by this wilderness deposit, but it wasn’t until 1887 that Pennsylvania oilman Byron David Benson opened a mine. Still, while the vein was rich by Adirondack standards, it was chicken scratch compared with the emerging Mesabi Range in Minnesota, and so the Benson Mines operated in fits and starts until shutting down at the end of World War I.
Had it not been pressed into duty during World War II, the weathered pits likely would have remained a forgotten artifact of nineteenth-century industrialization. But with government help and the urgency created by war, the mine was hastily returned to production—perhaps too hastily. An apparent decision by some long-forgotten contractor to cut one very small corner has ended up causing an environmental disaster that will cost upwards of $30 million.
In 1941, with the nation in need of every drop of molten steel it could produce, the mighty Jones & Laughlin Steel Corporation of Pittsburgh leased the mines and operated an adjacent ore-refining plant, built by the U.S. Defense Plant Corporation.
The operation did its share for the war effort, sending millions of tons of refined ore to steel plants in the Ohio Valley and employing as many as 1,200 people in the process, according to Mark Hall, a member of the county Industrial Development Agency. After the war, J&L purchased the property from the government and kept the operation afloat with some success before closing for good in 1978.
More than 350 people lost their jobs, the machinery was auctioned, and the decaying buildings remained a silent monument to a lost industrial era. It was a stinging disappointment, but there was no indication that a far greater problem was lurking underground.
Then in 1987 came complaints that the fish downstream of the plant tasted of fuel and that an oil sheen was visible on the Little River, a tributary of the Oswegatchie.
Officials were not immediately concerned. Oil slicks on the water can look a fright, even if they’ve been caused by just a discarded can of Quaker State. But it soon became clear this was different. “Every time they sucked a thousand gallons of oil off the river it was replaced by another thousand gallons of oil,” said Gary McCullouch, regional spill engineer for the state Department of Environmental Conservation. “This was a lot bigger than losing a little bit of oil in the water.”
Engineers were amazed when the wells and trenches they dug to collect the oil filled right back up again after they’d been emptied. Recovery crews dug more trenches through the years to collect oil, but it soon became apparent that the five thousand to six thousand gallons they were draining each week were not even making a dent.
In time, the reality became apparent. The old plant was somehow straddling a subterranean plume brimming with a million gallons of No. 2 fuel oil. Hall said the oil lies on top of the water table (oil floats on water), which is about ten feet below ground. It was now up to engineers to figure out how to contain and remove it before it caused an even greater environmental catastrophe.
By 1994, a polyvinyl curtain 1,500 feet long and fifteen deep was separating the source of the contamination from the Little River. That bought engineers some time, and by the decade that ended in 2007, some
350,000 gallons had been pumped from the site. Then funding ran out, and the project was put on hold.
During this whole operation, a lingering question remained in the back of everyone’s mind: how did J&L manage to, unwittingly it seems, lose a full million gallons of fuel? (Picture a football field nearly four feet deep in oil.) There was no record of any major spill—as if it would even be possible to spill that much at once—and the oil bunkers were still in decent shape.
Then one day when state officials were poking around the ruins they made an interesting discovery. It was what appeared to be a somewhat primitive water pipe made from tongue-and-groove wooden staves and banded with metal straps. Likely it dated from the mine’s initial incarnation at the turn of the previous century.
McCullouch, during a presentation to the Adirondack Park Agency in July, said he’s not sure, but it appears the pipe was used to feed fuel oil to the processing plant. Pressurized pipes running uphill were replaced with iron, but McCullouch believes that where the downhill flow was assisted by gravity, engineers decided to save a few bucks by upcycling the old wooden conduit.
By the time all is said and done, that nickel-and-dime decision will have cost the state and federal governments between $23 million and
$27 million over the course of a project that will have taken about thirty-five years to complete. DEC is expected to spend $14 million to
$18 million; the Development Authority of the North Country, $3 million (for building demolition); and the U.S. Environmental Protect Agency, $6 million.
In 1990, McCullouch said, the state attorney general tried to recoup costs from J&L, and reached a $1 million settlement.
The best guess is that at some point after the plant began to operate, the wooden pipe began to drip. McCullouch says he believes it was leaking from day one. The leak was slow enough that no one noticed, or if they did notice they didn’t care, because in a time when oil was dirt cheap and no one was particularly concerned about the environment, the loss of a barrel or two of oil a day would have caused little concern.
Cleanup efforts revived in 2012, at the same time it was declared a state Hazardous Waste Site, and today the cleanup is aided by a state spill fund paid for by an excise tax on oil.
Along with the oil cleanup, the rusting industrial buildings are being removed, so they will no longer be a blight on the Adirondack forests.
“When you drove down Route 3 you would see these dilapidated buildings, within a stone’s throw of the wilderness,” said Sherman Craig, who recently stepped down as chairman of the Adirondack Park Agency board.
Fortunately, the oil did not contaminate the open-pit mine itself, which is now a sizable lake, according to Hall, who first got involved with the site as an oil-spill contractor in 1990.
Much of the cleanup has occurred with little notice from the greater Adirondack public. At a recent meeting of the APA, Craig said the scope of the environmental catastrophe has flown under the radar because of its location far from the High Peaks and lake country that attract the lion’s share of attention in the Adirondack Park.
McCullouch acknowledged community frustration at the length of time the project has taken. “The buildings have been like an albatross around the neck of the community—everybody has been wishing somebody would do something.”
Progress has been slow, but it’s happening. A stakeholders group formed in 2010 to spur the project forward, and in 2015 the federal Environmental Protection Agency removed asbestos from the site.
Building removal began in 2017, and this year the larger buildings are coming down, as the oil recovery continues. Work will take another five years.
The fifty-four-acre property, which has a tailings pile so large it can be seen from space, might or might not be suitable for redevelopment. McCullouch said that other than the oil, the site has little in the way of contamination, but restoration is still going to be difficult. While many in the community might like to see a new industry locate at the site, it won’t be easy.
There is a more immediate goal. “We want to remove the blight from the area so that it looks like the Adirondacks and not an industrial park,” McCullouch said.