Neighbor’s photos prompt DEC to order emergency cleanup at the Rustic Barn

The Enterprise — Elizabeth Floyd Mair 
A worker from National Response Corporation puts caution tape around the Rustic Barn on Nov. 30, in preparation for an emergency cleanup, supervised by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. 

GUILDERLAND — Ryan Caruso of 6685 Fuller Station Road would like to buy the Rustic Barn, an abandoned property on Western Turnpike just east of the railroad overpass, and adjacent to his home. But first he would like to see the report that the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation plans to write about the emergency cleanup it has been doing at the Rustic Barn for the last week — a cleanup prompted by photos Caruso sent to the agency.

Since Nov. 28, the DEC has been overseeing a cleanup of the site by environmental contractor National Response Corporation “to stabilize the site and remove materials,” said Rick Georgeson, spokesman for the DEC’s Region 4.

The Albany County Health Department, the city of Watervliet, and the town of Guilderland were all notified, “in case of potential threats to the nearby Watervliet Reservoir drinking-water supply,” Georgeson said. “While the stream does not appear on our reference maps, out of an abundance of caution we are working on the assumption that it runs into the reservoir,” he said.

The reservoir, which is owned by the city of Watervliet, is the major source of drinking water in Guilderland.

Georgeson added that the reservoir water is tested regularly for a number of pesticides and that recent tests have not found any elevated pesticide levels.

Caruso’s photos show ripped and deteriorating old bags half-filled with pesticides and  herbicides, some of it just 10 feet from the stream that runs between Caruso’s backyard and that of the abandoned house, which he says is more or less the property line.

His 7-year-old son, Kieran, loves to play in that stream, tossing his construction trucks in and then using a fallen tree branch to fish them out.

Caruso’s cleanup in and around the stream was like an excavation, he said, and has also involved pulling brush, to allow access.  

He pulled a whole camper out of the stream, he says, that had collapsed in on itself and fallen into the water. He continues to find garbage in the lower portion of the stream.

The Rustic Barn has been empty since its owner, Herbert Young, who sold woodstoves and antiques out of the property, died in 2013. The property, now in tax foreclosure with Albany county, has been accruing back taxes since 2011, now amounting to $39,000. Young also operated a lawn-care business for a quarter-century, according to his obituary.

The county does not want to take ownership of 4852 Western Turnpike, because of fears of possible environmental contamination, Adam Zaranko, executive director of the county land bank, told The Enterprise earlier. Michael McLaughlin of Albany County said at the time that the county did not want to do any environmental testing or any remediation of the property because, once it starts digging or doing any tests or cleanup, the state could view that as taking ownership.

Chemicals

Caruso and his family moved to Guilderland six months ago, into the home he notes with pride is the old Fullers post office and general store, built in 1870. Ever since, he has been cleaning up his own backyard and that of the Rustic Barn at 4852 Western Turnpike, filling one 40-gallon contractor per week, he said. Both lawns were, “and are,” he said, strewn with trash.

He discovered the chemicals only recently, he said. The many large bags of fertilizer near the stream were inside an old metal shed that was partially collapsed. “I didn’t see them until I looked inside.”

He immediately contacted DEC, which requested photos, he said.

At that point, he went into the house to see if there was anything hazardous there. “It looked like an episode of ‘Hoarders’ in there: just stuff stacked to the ceiling.”

Previously he had been inside only to check on it after break-ins. Caruso says he has come across people rifling through the property six times.

Many of the chemicals were in the house, on the second floor, he said. There were bags of chlordane, a pesticide that was banned by the federal Environmental Protection Agency in 1988 and which is associated with gastrointestinal distress and neurological symptoms in the case of short-term exposure, and with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma when exposure is chronic.

Another chemical in the house was Sevin, or carbaryl, an insecticide that is not banned, but that has been largely replaced by other, less toxic alternatives. Another was a broadleaf herbicide, 2,4-Dichlorophenoxyacetic acid, classed by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, but not by the EPA, as a possible carcinogen.

Caruso said that on Dec. 4 workers excavated a large amount of soil from the area where the fertilizer had been, and wrapped it in plastic tarps. He said the tarps looked thin and that he hoped the soil would be taken away soon.

New neighbor

The abandoned property contains a one-story house with slate roof, dating from about 1860, and the barn itself, which is older, as well as a two-story addition that seems to be from the 1920s, Caruso says; all of those buildings are connected to one another,with the 1920s section linking the original house to the barn. There are also several outbuildings in disrepair.

Caruso said that Mary Ellen Johnson of the Guilderland Historical Society thinks the barn portion may be from the late 1700s and that all evidence points to it being the blacksmith shop for the now-demolished Fullers Tavern, which once stood across the turnpike.

Caruso, 39, works at Gade Farm in Guilderland. His wife, Lucinda, works for the state’s Department of Health.

Before moving to Guilderland, they lived in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, where Caruso worked for the Great Barrington Land Conservancy as site manager of the Housatonic River Walk trail. In Great Barrington, they lived in a house “older than this,” dating from 1800, that they “restored completely,” Caruso said.

Environmental cleanup

DEC officials has been overseeing a cleanup that began on Nov. 28, according to Georgeson.

“On Nov. 25, DEC responded to reports that potentially hazardous material was leaking from a structure at 4852 Western Turnpike in the town of Guilderland,” he told The Enterprise in an email. “Unable to reach the property owner, the Guilderland Fire Department entered the property on Nov. 28, and requested DEC assistance with cleanup of the potentially hazardous chemicals.”

The DEC and local responders found “leaking pesticides, herbicides, and other materials,” Georgeson wrote.

The City of Watervliet’s general manager, Jeremy Smith, said that the maps he has do not show a stream at 4852 Western Turnpike. “It could be a man-made stream,” he said, “or something so small it doesn’t appear on our map.”

Dave Dressel, Watervliet’s Water Department supervisor, was unsure of whether the stream enters the reservoir. He said, “I would assume it probably — although you’ve got the railroad tracks. It’s kind of right on the line there.” He said it would depend on whether the stream “dumps in upstream of our dam, or downstream.”

The reservoir is tested for contaminants once a month, he added.

Smith concurred, “We test our streams and our reservoir for contaminants, and we have found nothing of note. There’s no contamination found in there.”

Tom Brady of the Albany County Department of Health told The Enterprise that the reservoir was last tested for synthetic organic compounds, including pesticides and herbicides — testing mandated by the EPA — in October 2017, and that none were found. Tests will be repeated this spring, he said.

“The good news is that this has been found, and it’s being cleaned up,” said Brady.

Ted Ausfeld, who worked for 32 years for the town of Guilderland’s water filtration plant and who was instrumental in the testing and cleanup of the defunct Army depot where the Northeastern Industrial Park is now located, said the area is full of culverts that could easily lead water to the reservoir.

“You should be treating all water in that area as if it goes into the reservoir,” he said. He added, “Somebody from the city of Watervliet or the DEC should go walk it, if they’re not sure.”

Ausfeld looked at the big picture, describing the path of water as a “never-ending cycle,” falling to earth as rain, traveling through the ground and finding its way to streams and rivers and then back to the ocean.

“And then it starts all over again,” he said.

Even if the water from the Rustic Barn property is not going into the reservoir, it is going into the lower Normanskill, Ausfeld said. And that goes into the Hudson River.

“It’s still going somewhere,” he said. “Someone in some other community is drinking it.”

A buyer?

Caruso would like to buy the Rustic Barn property. He and his wife are trying to start a small farm. The barn, he says, would make a nice farmstand.

The couple has been planting “a bunch of blueberry bushes” and would like to sell some produce. They have a small brood of hens and would like to sell eggs as well.

Caruso thinks the original one-story portion of the home, with the still intact slate roof, could also be saved.

Michael McLaughlin, director of policy and research in the Albany County Executive’s Office, said that the county has the ability to convey properties in tax foreclosure to parties who want to do something with them.

In the case of the Rustic Barn, he said, “We haven’t really received any interest in the property.”

He noted that, most of the time, the county legislature requires that the county sell properties for their appraised values.

The appraised value of the Rustic Barn property, according to Guilderland’s assessor, Karen Van Wagenen, is $92,800.

Sometimes, though, McLaughlin said, the legislature might decide that the long-term value of getting a property back in productive use and on the county tax rolls is more important than the selling price.

Georgeson said that, after the cleanup is complete, the DEC will compile a report and give it to the town.

John Haluska, a retired real-estate appraiser who regularly prods the town boards to take action on abandoned buildings in town, addressed the town board Tuesday night, stating that there were leaking cans of petroleum products in a shed and a collapsed outhouse near the stream, which means there is a potential for E. coli in the stream.

He also described the exact course of the stream and said that it flows into the Watervliet Reservoir.

Haluska told The Enterprise that he would like to see a final report and also tour the building with Zaranko of the land bank.

“We in the suburbs have received so little from the Albany County Land Bank,” he said.

He said of Caruso and his success in beginning to get the property cleaned up, “Ryan has got more done regarding this matter in six weeks than I have achieved in six years.”

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