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Many Questions, Not Enough Citizens at Monday's Public Meeting About the Mercury in Sleepy Hollow

Soil cleanup surrounding the former Duracell plant to come in the spring, along with a nearby storefront office to field residents' concerns. Lead counts up to 28,000ppm will not be addressed.

The  of the Sleepy Hollow neighborhood surrounding the former Duracell battery plant is complete, and for many residents, the information is bleak and only leads to more questions.

There is no shortage of information – officials from the New York State Departments of Health and Environmental Conservation, along with representatives from Gillette (successor to Duracell) – presented highlights to the public on Monday night from a 970 page report.

The most staggering findings reveal mercury counts on select surrounding properties of up to 180 parts per million and lead counts up to 28,000 ppm. The lead will not be addressed by the remediation.

Though name-tagged officials were clearly braced to engage in a long, heated Q&A with the public and expected a sizable enough turnout to merit holding the event in the Sleepy Hollow High School auditorium, the 30 or so seats that were occupied contained mostly press reporters and politicians.

The few residents there that did speak were eloquent and often moving with their concerns. Two specifically spoke of Kendall Street, which forms something of the unofficial borderline on the mercury-test map, with the highest concentrations found south and east of what is now the parking lot adjacent to Barnhardt Park. Kendall Street is currently a mess of construction down its length, as private crews hired by the Village are digging up a good portion of the street to build new sidewalks.

“The dust is coming in my house, and I’m concerned,” said Gorete Crowe, who has spent the last 17 years in the house that’s been in her family since 1970. “I have a health condition. I’m an asthmatic. Any dust bothers me anyway, and there’s a lot of dust. You can sweep the front of your house, the next day it’s dirty again.”

Crowe got choked up when she wondered if the three dogs she’s buried in her backyard over the years might have died before their time. “I really do believe it’s Duracell. I’m concerned for the animals. Maybe you don’t see the effects in humans in the same way.” She worried about how often she and her parents ate vegetables from the yard, and she wondered about the absence of the Latin community in the room.

“I don’t see a lot of Spanish speakers here,” Crowe said. “They don’t want to hear it. They are trying to save money; they’re going to eat their vegetables.”

Officials, including Sleepy Hollow Mayor Ken Wray who made a point of speaking at the beginning and end of the night, said they did their utmost to inform the Spanish-speaking residents of the affected area. Gillette sent lengthy letters in the appropriate language to every property tested, but these letters went to landlords not tenants; many people here rent rather than own. The Mayor noted that the full report is available on the Village Website, as well as on paper at the Warner Library. 

“I’m surprised at the turnout tonight,” said Sleepy Hollow resident Tracy Brown, also affiliated with the Riverkeeper organization. “I’m concerned that enough effort hasn’t been made to get to this community. How about tenants? How about people that don’t speak English?”

During the “Next Steps” period of the presentation, officials announced the beginning of the Interim Remedial Measures work plan, where soil and plant replacement for 76 properties with mercury concentrations over the 4.8 ppm site goal is slated to begin as soon as the weather permits in the spring of 2012.

One ongoing outreach attempt during this work stage of the efforts will come from the storefront Gillette is looking to rent near the site. Gillette's Global External Relations Manager, Kurt Iverson, said they are searching for a location that “will provide a project information access point for community members during regular hours. We will make ourselves as accessible as possible.”

The remediation work is a personal process, Iverson said, tailored to each individual property and based on agreement reached between owners and experts. “Nothing will be done to your property without your consent,” he said of what was “mainly a landscaping project.”

What complicated matters for the soil testing, and for the residents affected, was the “historic fill” used centuries ago up until the early 20th century to level or raise much of the land along the waterfront. The fill consists of non-native dirt containing coal and wood ash, demo debris, and dredged sediments, rich with a background level of mercury and lead – thus the elevated goal for what Gillette is deemed responsible to remedy. The lead levels actually became more elevated the farther away from the Duracell plant researchers went, so no discernable pattern could be attributed to the former site's operations.

"It's a well-founded concern that we're being asked to accept a level [of mercury] that is four times the accepted safety standard," Brown said, who also expressed bewilderment over the ignored lead.

Charlotte Bethany from the NYSDOH, who fielded the brunt of the health-related concerns, stressed that this mercury goal level for the site is still very conservative, and that health risks aren’t seen until at least 1,000 times that figure. As for lead, often far above the 400 ppm the State uses as a safety maximum, she urged citizens to take their own action, to wash hands, avoid direct contact with exposed dirt, and replace soil if necessary. Children are all tested for lead by law at age 1 and 2 and there have been no elevated blood lead levels found in this area so far, she said.

“So basically we need to wear rubber suits,” said one man whose whose parents live on Kendall Street. “My father’s health has deteriorated in the last 10 years. There are old photos that show silver dust all over the backyards.” Already he doesn’t let his one child play in his parent’s backyard, and now “my wife and I are expecting…that’s another one that won’t play there.”

One resident on Lawrence Street whose house sits on soil below the 4.8 ppm goal established but above the State standard of 1.2 ppm was worried about resale. Would she be legally required to disclose the results of soil testing to any prospective buyers? The answer was yes, but, said Bethany, “you are not going to find a pristine area in New York State.”

joy November 10, 2011 at 02:56 PM
Landlords should have a legal responsibility to inform tenants, similiar to if a property has lead paint. These numbers are shocking. I am outside of the area they are testing but I am still worried.
Melissa November 10, 2011 at 04:06 PM
I don't think testing children at age 1 or 2 for lead levels in the blood really matters. It's mostly the many years after age 1 that children get down and dirty in the soil. Maybe our children should be tested a little later in life as well, maybe ages 4-6, before we say that there are no elevated blood lead levels found in the area.
Krista Madsen November 10, 2011 at 04:46 PM
Good point. I can contain my 1-year-old but the 3 year-old is unstoppable.
joy November 10, 2011 at 06:11 PM
Great point, but not sure we need to wait. We can test older kids who have grown up in the area now.

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