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Guilderland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, December 4, 2008

Mercury rising: Solution in sight for Mereco

By Saranac Hale Spencer

GUILDERLAND — Mercury still lingering on Railroad Avenue after decades of study will likely be removed in the coming years.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency has determined an approach to clean up the site, which has had 1,820 tons of mercury-contaminated soil and 410 tons of PCB-contaminated soil removed already, according to an October report from the EPA.  The remaining 16,700 cubic yards of soil and 110 cubic yards of sediment from a nearby stream will be removed after the plan is executed, said Tom Taccone, of the EPA.

From the mid 1950s to the late 1990s, Mercury Refining, Inc., known as Mereco, was recovering mercury from products bearing the heavy metal, like batteries.  In the early 1980s, the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation tested the area and found high levels of mercury and polychlorinated biphenyls, Taccone said.

Mercury is a neurotoxin that can cause kidney and brain damage.  Polychlorinated biphenyls are an organic compound, banned in the 1970s because of toxicity which bioaccumulates — it is classified as a probable human carcinogen by the World Health Organization.

In September of 1983, the Mereco site was added to the National Priorities List of abandoned or uncontrolled hazardous waste sites, as part of the Superfund cleanup process.

“While the most immediate risks posed by this site were addressed by others many years ago, mercury is still present at levels that can be dangerous if people are directly exposed,” EPA Regional Administrator Alan Steinberg said in a statement.

The half-acre property is located in an industrial area — a thin arm of Guilderland that borders the city of Albany panhandle and the town of Colonie.  The closest residents live about a quarter mile from the polluted site, none of whom draw from the potentially contaminated ground water, according to the EPA.  The nearby unnamed tributary to the Patroon Creek, which is set to have some of its sediment removed, feeds the Patroon Reservoir.

“Beginning in the early 1980s, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and others documented elevated levels of [mercury] in soils adjacent to the Mereco site and in sediments and aquatic organisms of the Patroon Creek as far downstream as the Hudson River,” says a 2001 study of the reservoir from the University at Albany’s Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences.  “Beyond the site itself, the highest sediment [mercury] concentrations occur in Patroon Reservoir and in the Hudson River at the mouth of Patroon Creek,” it says.

Currently, Mereco is not recovering mercury; it has switched to precious metals, such as silver and gold, Taccone said.

The EPA’s next step will be to meet with companies that sent mercury-bearing items to Mereco, said Taccone, to come up with a system for them to pay for cleanup.  He estimated that there will be about 10 major parties and he expects that they will finish meeting by June. 

The EPA was able to compile lists of major and minor contributors based on records from Mereco, he said, and guessed that there are at least 400 minor parties that will be offered a settlement and then 1,500 to 2,000 even smaller contributors.

The large parties will be offered the opportunity to “implement the remedy,” Taccone said, referring to the EPA’s chosen method for cleanup.  The projected price for the project is $11 million, he said.

It will involve excavation of surface materials and solidification of contaminated areas deeper in the ground, he said.  For the latter, “solidification agents” are to be injected or “mixed with the contaminated media” to lock up the mercury in a matrix that cannot leach, he said.  Once finished, an institutional control will be placed on the deed to ensure that the solidified mass will not be disturbed, he said, and the same will do for the cap that has already been placed over an area with PCBs.

The project itself will likely take a year, Taccone said, but probably won’t start for another year or two.

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