|The Dragon and the Ice Castle
Rediscovery of Sacred Space in the Finger Lakes
Part One: Chapter Thirteen
Monday, February 8, 1988
Monday morning before leaving my warm bed I began to make phone calls. First I called New York Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC)—a false start since staff had just arrived, and was unprepared to take calls. Minutes later, a DEC staffer called back. I described the situation and answered questions as he filled out a form. He asked me to take an engineer to the site.
The morning was spent calling city and county officials and the press. I called any office which might be responsible for the public hazard presented by PCBs. Later, a DEC engineer called, and we agreed to meet at 1pm at Park Street and Hiawatha Boulevard.
At noon, I headed for City Hall where the Mayor would give his State of the City address. As the Council Chamber filled, I read the morning paper. A special Business section's front page proclaimed bold headlines:
Roots of Syracuse's Economic Future Taking Hold in Oil City Tank Farm
Beside this was a color rendering of Pyramid's Oil City vision, with mall, housing, marina, offices, and industry.
A year ago Oil City was a 750 acre decaying industrial wedge bounded by Interstates 81 and 690 and the southeast shore of Onondaga Lake. Its noteworthy features are fields of oil storage tanks that gave the tract its name and the Sewage Treatment Plant which occasionally belched foul odors.
Today, thanks to Robert Congel, Oil City is held to be the gate through which Syracuse will stride triumphantly into the 21st century. Congel, managing partner of Pyramid Cos., revealed in July a $1 billion dream to transform Oil City into the region's largest shopping mall, 2,000 new homes, marina, office parks, and rehabilitation zone near downtown where decrepit warehouses and factories would become condos and offices.
"I can't imagine a project more important to the city," said Development Director Joe Mareane, who Mayor Young, a backer of the plan, appointed to work on the project .
Others, however, tell the city they can't imagine a proposal worse for remaining downtown retailers and for building owners who the city has nurtured with staff time and development dollars. Just as the Oil City proposal overshadowed all other development activities in 1987, resolution of differences between backers and critics will dominate development in 1988.
The plan, if implemented, will reverse trends that decimated the city since the '50's: flight of middle class residents to suburbs; departure of retailers from downtown in pursuit of fleeing customers; and drift of offices to suburban office parks "We can't sit on our hands and whine about decline of the city," Mareane said. "For the city to prosper we must take risks."
The article then reviewed opposition to the Oil City plan. It ended with the note:
Syracuse Industrial Development Agency's period for comment on Pyramid's DEIS closes today. Pyramid is to review all comments and respond in a final EIS.
Soon, it was standing room only. I saw Syracuse New Times editor Walt Sheppard seated in the front. I tapped his elbow and passed him The Right Actions I gave to Kenan Thursday.
As the Mayor's speech began, I left and drove to Oil City. Minutes later, a DEC pickup appeared with the engineer. He said another staff member was coming, and asked me to wait. Soon, a woman appeared, and was introduced as Sue Miller. We then drove down Hiawatha Street to park under the bridge.
The weekend windstorm had abated, and the hike along the railroad was more comfortable than Sunday. It was another gray overcast Syracuse day, with light snow falling. I led the DEC staff through drifted snow and buried rails.
Arriving at the north corner, I pointed to the four mounds, now hidden under snow, which actually made them more visible. "It's easy to see several large objects were buried here," I said. "Under each mound is a large industrial electric transformer."
The engineer stared at me with intense skepticism. I almost felt hostility in his gaze. "So what?" he said abruptly. "All kinds of stuff is buried here. This is a junkyard. Before that it was a city dump. Anything could be here, including 50 gallon drums."
I was startled at his thoroughly negative response. "They were buried more recently than when it was a city dump. See the saplings on either side? They were dug in maybe than ten years ago. From the weeds I'd say they were buried five years ago."
"How do you know anything is buried here?" The engineer continued his critical, skeptical interrogation.
"I'm a dowser. I locate buried objects." I saw this inspired further doubt in his mind. I got out a dowsing rod and, feeling the fool waving a "magic wand," I showed where one lay hidden under a mound. The engineer stared with intense skepticism.
Sue looked curious. "I thought dowsers find water," she said.
"I understand. Few people know much about dowsing. Water is only one thing a trained dowser can find. For example, German miners used dowsing to locate mineral ores." This inspired not an ounce of faith from the engineer. Sue was curious, but certainly not convinced.
"How do you know what might be here are transformers?" The engineer wouldn't budge off his skepticism.
"A friend told me his friend sold ten transformers to Marley's years ago—each large enough to service a building downtown. They removed the copper, and disposed of the shells by burying them on the site. I came here Sunday and located these."
"What makes you think they contain PCBs?" he pried.
"I'm not sure. But these things are buried as deep as they could dig a hole, so they must be something they didn't want to come to the surface. Probably PCBs."
"More likely they let the PCBs run on the ground. Who told you they were here?" His voice dripped with suspicion.
''Unfortunately, I can't tell you. Even if I did, it wouldn't do any good. My friend was told about them in strict—shall I say—Christian confidence. Even to tell me violates his trust."
The engineer continued his challenge, "Look, we can't go on property without a court order. Your stick isn't sufficient evidence for a court order. I'm not sure we have jurisdiction."
"I understand, but I can't reveal my source. I'll cooperate every other way to get these things removed. If I have to, I'll come here with a pick and shovel." My frustration was obvious.
"Don't be foolish. You'd be arrested for trespass. I advise against it." This was as close as he came to positive concern.
|The Dragon and the Ice Castle
Rediscovery of Sacred Space in the Finger Lakes
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"I'm not about to rush into that," I said. "But these things have got to be removed. This place is right beside Onondaga Lake. A trench over there runs right into the Canal."
"Look, here's my card. Talk to your friend—ask him to come forward. If you want an investigation, get your friend to talk."
Frustrated, I got out my camera and took photos of the site.
That night, I drafted a press release detailing the presence of the PCBs and steps I'd taken to alert authorities. It didn't really have an ending. I ended with the comment DEC said I had insufficient evidence for an investigation. It was a stalemate.
ELECTRIC TRANSFORMERS WITH PCB'S BURIED AT MARLEY'S SCRAP YARD
prepared by: David Yarrow
February 12, 1988
On Sunday, January 24, I visited Marley's scrap metal yard with two friends to attempt to locate the lost Onondaga Indian village reportedly buried under the site.
On Thursday, January 28, I heard an alarming story from a friend: that another friend had sold several large electrical transformers to Marley's years ago, and that Marley's had buried them on this property by Onondaga Lake. This information was given to my friend in the strictest confidence, and was passed on to me in similar trust. These transformers stand 10 feet tall and contain many gallons of PCBs, an acute carcinogen and mutagen.
On Sunday, January 31, I visited Marley's a second time with a friend. We believe we have located where five of these transformers are buried. The burial site is along the northern edge of Marley's alongside the railroad bed just short of where it meets the main Conrail tracks. Since there was no snow cover, we could observe that the ground surface had been disturbed in a way indicating several large holes had been dug and filled in again. The weeds covering the earth mounded above the burial site indicated that the digging had taken place at least seven years ago. The ground in that area is saturated with water, so the transformers have been sitting in water for several years, rapidly rusting.
On Thursday, February 4, I met with Bruce Kenan, Pyramid's Project Manager for the Carousel Center and informed him of everything I had learned about the site. At my request, Joan Christensen of the Syracuse Common Council was a witness to this discussion. Mr. Kenan listened well, but expressed disbelief in my information since Pyramid had bored over 100 holes into Marley's and failed to turn up any evidence of PCBs, or transformers, or Onondaga village. He requested a few days to review my information with his staff, and promised to meet with me the next week. This meeting has not yet occurred.
Immediately after meeting with Mr. Kenan, I held a press conference to begin revealing my knowledge of the situation. Because of the sensitive nature of my information, the need to allow Pyramid time to respond, and the violations of state and federal environmental laws involved, I did not at that time reveal the presence of the transformers, although I did mention the presence of PCBs.
On Friday, February 5, I met for four hours with a chief of the Onondaga Nation and informed him of all the details of the situation.
On Saturday, February 6 (my 38th birthday), I reviewed the geography, geology, ecology and politics of the situation. On the advice of an Onondaga Indian chief, I decided to get a load off my shoulders by alerting the federal EPA's Hazardous Hotline. I also began telling the rest of the story to the press reporters who attended my press conference on Thursday. It is a week later, and the EPA has not responded.
On Sunday, February 7, I returned to Marley's a third time accompanied by Matt Driscoll, the Syracuse Common Councilor whose district includes Marley's. I showed Mr. Driscoll the burial site and explained the situation. After Mr. Driscoll left I conducted further investigations to confirm my understanding. That evening I phoned Mr. Kenan at home to tell him I had alerted the EPA, and that I was going to attempt to remove the transformers.
On Monday, February 8, I called NYS DEC, and city and county officials to inform them of the situation, including: Nick Pirro, Bill Sanford, Mark Stanczyk, Joe Barry (Health Dept.), Tom Young, the Syracuse City Engineer, Joe Nicoletti, Nadar Maroun, and David Michel. That afternoon, I took DEC investigators Sue Miller and Dale Vollmer to the burial site and explained my information. They stated that a court order would be required to excavate the site, and that my information was insufficient to obtain such a court order.