EPA: Tannery site contaminated

JOHNSTOWN – The former Demis Leather tannery on West Fulton Street is contaminated and threatens public health, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says.

City Engineer Chandra Cotter told the Common Council on Monday about the problems with the property.

“Hazardous substances, pollutants or contaminants present at the site represent a threat to the public health and welfare … in that there is a potential human exposure at the site via inhalation, ingestion and/or direct human contact,” EPA officials reported.

The EPA also says the contaminants at the property pose a threat of fire or explosion.

Cotter said the federal “sequester” has resulted in a lack of funding to allow the EPA to move ahead with cleanup at this time.

The property, at 124-126 W. Fulton St., is still privately owned by Demis, but the owner has been delinquent in paying taxes.

EPA officials say they want to coordinate efforts with the city. Plans may include inventory by the EPA, sampling and removal of materials.

Cotter said EPA officials warned there could be “exorbitant” costs associated with the cleanup if the city were to take over the site. She said the EPA had budgeted $96,000 to do initial cleanup, but due to the federal “sequester,” the cleanup project has been put on hold.

She said the EPA issued a pollution-situation report for the former tannery. She said a further assessment of the site is expected to be done next week, but the sequester has presented delays.

“Right now, we’re kind of at a standstill,” Cotter said.

According to the EPA report, the site has two buildings and is essentially abandoned, unfenced and unsecured. A building located at 124 W. Fulton St. is a partially collapsed, one-story structure with a sublevel and a basement. The EPA indicated the building was used by Demis Leather as a chemical supply warehouse and distribution facility until operations at the site ceased. Many typical leather-industry chemicals were on the site. The report said a 10,00-gallon steel, above-ground tank sits within a concrete containment area inside the building.

EPA said the building at 126 W. Fulton St. is a two-story wood and brick building with a mezzanine and a large crawl space and basement level. The building was used as a leather production facility. Open pits on the first floor may have been used as part of the industrial wastewater pretreatment system, the report said.

The report said EPA officials walked through the site Jan. 10. Chromium, lead and arsenic are in the sediments within the floor channels of the first floor at 126 W. Fulton St. The channels received materials that drained into a 4-inch floor sump, which contains process water that has high levels of heavy metals, including arsenic, barium, cadmium, chromium, lead and mercury. The report said “tanning fluff” coating the walls, ceiling and floor contains elevated levels of heavy metals.

“The buildings at the site are not secure and may be assessed by trespassers, vandals and metal scavengers, allowing direct contact with hazardous chemicals that are present at the site,” the report said.

EPA officials said they saw seven drums containing corrosive liquid. An organic mass that may contain tanning “pickle” is in the basement at124 W. Fulton St. building and came up negative in an anthrax test, the report said.

“The buildings’ partial wood construction, the improper storage of flammable liquids and the documented presence of metal scrappers within the buildings present a threat of fire or explosion,” the EPA stated. “The flammable liquid containers are in poor condition and have not been properly secured within the buildings.”

The EPA noted the former tannery site is in a mixed-use area at the corner of Fulton Street and Pleasant Avenue and is bounded by an FJ&G Rail Trail pedestrian walkway to the east and another leather company to the south. The nearest residential property is less than 100 feet from the 126 W. Fulton St. property line. A public park on Washington Street off the Rail Trail is less that a quarter-mile from the site, the EPA noted.

Michael Anich covers Johnstown and Fulton County news. He can be reached at johnstown@leaderherald.com.