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June 10, 2013

Bridge workers found toxic surprise in Neahwa Park in 1988

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The Daily Star

---- — Plans were in place to build a permanent bridge over the millrace to enter Neahwa Park from Gas Avenue in Oneonta in June 1988. That roadway is known today as James Georgeson Avenue. 

The old bridge had been demolished in May, and city workers had begun preliminary work to install the new bridge. What they found in doing some digging was coal tar, a problem that would plague the area for several years to come.

“The material is toxic and hazardous,” said Eric Hamilton, an associate sanitary engineer with the state Department of Environmental Conservation on Thursday, June 16. 

Hamilton said coal tar was a by-product of a coal gasification process used by New York State Electric and Gas Corp. when operating the plant nearby. That plant was demolished several years ago, located where today’s parking lot is next to Damaschke Field. The plant closed in 1953 after about 80 years of operation in producing gas from coal for heating. NYSEG had sold the site to the city in 1966.

The material was found 50 to 60 feet from the plant site, near the millrace that runs into the Susquehanna River. The substance did not move quickly, and posed no effect on water quality as long as it was undisturbed, according to Hamilton.

The plans for the permanent bridge were put on hold, and a temporary crossing was built. It was recommended that the plant and a second building on the site be demolished, but that was still several years away. NYSEG was called upon to pay for the demolition, and later for all coal tar to be removed from the area. It was predicted in November 1991 that the cleanup could span 20 years.

The state and NYSEG agreed in 1994 to clean up the Oneonta site, but the the two wrangled over the details and scope of the cleanup.

Actual cleanup began in early April 1995. Crews moved in with heavy equipment on Thursday, April 6 to dig out contaminated dirt and pile it on plastic for removal near the millrace, once a source of water for Elmore Milling Co., which was near the corner of Main Street and Neahwa Place. Some of the coal tar was found under Damaschke Field and other nearby areas. 

After the initial digging, air-sparging equipment was temporarily installed, which injected air into the groundwater or soil and vacuums it out. Any contaminated air went through a filtration system before being released. Tests were to be studied after a month. The air-sparging resumed in September of that year, and was set to run each day for the next three to five years.

Another major phase of the nearly $12 million project began in the latter months of 2005, involving the excavation of several thousand more tons of soil tainted with coal tar. Relocation of nearby water, sewer and storm drain pipes was also completed. The project would also include renovations and construction of new buildings at Damaschke Field, while keeping the 1939 grandstand in place. The soil excavation began in Neahwa Park on Oct. 31, 2005, replaced with clean soil and fill by late 2006.

Plans for Damaschke Field renovations were released in May 2006 but construction didn’t begin until the end of the Oneonta Tigers baseball season. Renovations were ready in time for the home opener in June 2007. The initial $2.3 million in ballpark renovations were funded by NYSEG.

This weekend: A famed Roxbury church turns 120.

City Historian Mark Simonson’s column appears twice weekly. On Saturdays, his column focuses on the area during the Depression and before. His Monday columns address local history after the Depression. If you have feedback or ideas about the column, write to him at The Daily Star, or email him at simmark@stny.rr.com. His website is www.oneontahistorian.com. His columns can be found at www.thedailystar.com/marksimonson.