So You Think You're Dealing With A Former Gas Works?
With as many as 52,000 locations in the United States alone, there are ample chances for an active citizen to be in proximity to “coal-tar” residuals and wastes at some point in life. It is a proven fact that it is not in your interests to linger around these substances, but it does pay to be sensitive to what may or may not represent these threats. Therefore, perhaps your concerns should be addressed, at least to the point of satisfying your curiosity, premonition or observations.
Two facts will leap out to you. First of all, most gas manufacturing wastes are 1) dark in color (mainly dark browns, dark gray, to black) and 2) have some strong and unpleasant degree of odor. Many are viscous and tar-like. Diagnostic gas works debris will generally be found around the location. This debris can be tar, firebrick, dark brown and blue green wood chips, along with cinder and ash, and particles or chunks of coal and coke.
Some “Rules” For Your Consideration
If you have concern, there are two more “rules” that you should observe.
1) These residuals and wastes are indeed toxic and should not be breathed, touched, ingested or brought in contact with your skin.
2) You need to do some safe library research in order to confirm if you have indeed discovered gas manufacturing or associated wastes.
Once you have collected sufficient evidence, you should contact the appointed officials of your town, city or borough. They are paid to represent you the citizen in matters of public health.
But, having said all of this, there are many degrees of perception about toxic wastes at “City Hall.” You should be systematic in your research and keep “good book” of your efforts. This includes, ideally, a bound notebook that will stand up in court (should your concern go in that direction) and will show the diligence, care and effort that you have gone to, and will further demonstrate that there are no missing pages in your logbook.
Here are a string of considerations that you may wish to consider in taking on this citizen’s responsibility:
1) Attempt to identify a known historic link with what you have seen, smelled, found or otherwise suspect. Your best move here is to go to the History Collection at the nearest public library and try for any of the following:
• Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps (likely on
microfilm) of the of the location under suspicion. If you are dealing with a
microfilm collection, they likely will extend back into the 1880s and will be a
collection at irregular intervals (about every decade) and on the same roll and
in date sequence;
2) Once you have proven the existence of a gas works or of a fairly large industrial plant, you have ample reason to suspect that there are, somewhere around the plant, today’s evidence of coal tar or related wastes.
3) Keep in mind that the larger the plant the larger the quantities of wastes that would have been produced. When operators made the decision to discharge liquid wastes to the ground or to dump gasyard waste to the ground, it generally occurred around the down-slope fringe of the property.
• If the area of interest has a
stream, run, creek or gully at one side or at the downhill end of the property,
there is where you will find the plant waste.
4) Go back and have a second look. Take disposable latex gloves with you and have a partner, the latter which is always the best advice when going exploring anywhere.
Have the following equipment:
Avoid digging pits as this could expose you to toxic substances or their gases. Do remember that others can take on the site and waste exploration and that they are specially trained and equipped for such duty.
5) Look for items and situations for photography (always show the scale device) and for your limited bag-sampling:
• Tar or tarry-objects
If you come across bubbles issuing from ponded water, do stay clear as these likely are gases that will be toxic to you. If you note trickles of bluish water you may have encountered some form of dissolved cyanide. If such water is bubbling, stay way clear as this could be cyanide gas. In fact, go right away to the Health Department and ask them to send a crew back out with you to assess such evidence.
• Avoid digging with your hands. Also take some durable zip-lock bags.
6) Now you have a choice to make about seeking additional help.
If you have not yet been to the City Health Department, this might be the place to start. Take names and telephone numbers and make an effort to take notes in front of these people, in your bound logbook. Officials always pay a greater deal of attention when you are serious enough and well-oriented to be a note-taker.
Depending on the degree of helpful response from your City or Town officials, you may wish to inform and take counsel of the environment reporter for the major newspaper. Many of these individuals are members of the Society for Environmental Journalism and are on the lookout for worthwhile public interest stories relating to health and safety.
Don’t forget to “take names and numbers.”
7) About this time, your findings may suggest that the State environmental agency should be informed of the site. Here you will want to approach the Hazardous Waste Section or Unit and ask for the person who deals with coal-tar sites and/or former gas works. It’s been my experience that it is best to take the trouble to go to the State Capital and talk directly with these experts. Make a call first, to insure that you have an appointment, for these people generally are overworked and understaffed, and frequently off in the field looking at these “uncontrolled hazardous waste sites.” Have your logbook, your evidence, and, If possible the appropriate sheet of the U.S. Geological Survey topographic quadrangle of covering the site and its surroundings. You generally can make a facsimile copy of such a map at the public library.
8) By this time you will have done all that a citizen can do to bring toxic gas works information to the attention of their public officials.
What if this is personal?
By this question I mean, what if you live on or adjacent to the place which you believe is, or have found evidence of the existence of, a former manufactured gas plant or other coal-tar site?
In addressing this situation, I hasten to point out that I am a professional engineer and professional geologist and not a public health sanitarian or toxicologist. I will, however, address the matter from the standpoint of the homeowner.
Your choice of options likely will include the following: