Bowitch Assists Saratoga County In Securing EPA Cleanup of Brownfield Site

Article published in Daily Gazette on March 18, 0016  (website link or PDF)

Local people will tell you how the former Saratoga County Homestead was once a grand old building. The sprawling hospital-style building was by far the most magnificent in a remote corner of Saratoga County where every direction seems to take you downhill.

But the former tuberculosis sanitarium and later county home for the aged and infirm is now a window-shattered shell, and a hazard to the environment, thanks to tons of asbestos inside.

It's been empty for decades. There have been hundreds of break-ins by teenagers who had heard tales about the hilltop "haunted hospital" outside Barkersville, at the very southern edge of the Adirondacks.

Many of those trespassers left graffiti behind.

A large amount of asbestos that once insulated heating pipes inside the building has peeled or flaked away, and is mixed in with the cement dust and other debris on the floors.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency arrived this winter and is conducting a $1.5 million asbestos removal under the federal government's emergency Superfund program.

All the people who've been inside -- even if they were there illegally -- provided a justification for quick action by the EPA, after the state brought the situation to the EPA's attention last year.

"There's obvious known entry and obvious human exposure," said Carl Pellegrino, an on-site EPA coordinator. "For decades, it's very obvious there's been human contact and exposure. Human exposure is one of the priorities for establishing a Superfund site."

Environmental Restoration, a Missouri company that works for the EPA, began staging this winter, and began active asbestos removal in the building's basement in mid-February.

The first truckload of sealed and packaged asbestos left Thursday morning for a hazardous waste landfill in Ontario County -- the first of what is expected to be 10 or more truckloads, as an estimated seven tons of asbestos is to be removed.

"It's basically pipe wrap and it runs along both floors," said Blake MacKinney, the on-site coordinator for Environmental Restoration. "A lot of it is intact, but a lot has deteriorated and fallen on the floor."

Work is starting in the basement because contractors want a structural evaluation of the upper floors before starting work there, MacKinney said. There are concerns about the condition of the roof, and that it could collapse.

In all likelihood, the building will later be torn down. Bricks have already tumbled from the roof cornices, and copper flashing and anything else of value was stolen long ago.

"It's a grand old building, it's too bad it ended up that way," said Paul Kahn, another one of the EPA on-site coordinators overseeing the work.

1913 TB sanitarium

The infirmary opened in 1913 as a county-operated tuberculosis sanitarium. At that time it was believed fresh air in the mountains helped cure the lung disease. The development of antibiotics eventually eliminated the need for sanitariums. From 1960 to 1979, the facility was Saratoga County's home for the aged and infirm who had nowhere else to go.

It has been empty since the county built a nursing home in Ballston Spa in 1979, in response to complaints about the Providence site's age and remoteness from patients' families.

In 1985, the county sold it to a private investor planning a drug rehabilitation facility, but those plans never materialized, and eventually the owner stopped paying taxes.

"It was in pretty good shape when it was bought privately," said Bill Cummings, a 75-year-old member of the Town Board who remembers when it operated.

"It was a beautiful building. It's a shame," said Providence Town Supervisor John Collyer.

In 2014, the building came back to the county's attention because of the unpaid taxes. The county has the power to seize and sell properties when taxes go unpaid.

Aware of the potential asbestos issue, county officials decided to hire an environmental attorney before taking ownership of the property.

The attorney recommended contacting the state Department of Environmental Conservation, which in turn brought the situation to the EPA's attention. That led to the Superfund designation. Asbestos was once a common insulating material, but breathing in the substance is now linked to cancer and other serious lung diseases.

Collyer said he doesn't know whether the asbestos removal could clear the way for the county to seize the property and then sell it at a back-tax auction.

"Good question," he said. "We'll play it by ear until after this cleanup gets done. I'd like to see it auctioned."

At this point, all involved believe the old building's days are numbered.

"Based on the deterioration that has happened over the years, the building will have to be demolished unless someone wants to spend an awful, awful, awful lot of money," Collyer said.

Under the circumstances, Pellegrino said, the EPA recognizes it may not be able to recover any of the estimated $1.5 million in cleanup costs.


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