JULIE CARR SMYTH Business writer
Section: BUSINESS,  Page: E1

Date: Friday, November 8, 1996

They may have powered the gaslight street lamps of a bygone era, but the coal gasification plants of the 19th century left a less charming legacy.

Buried at the sites of 22 former plants around the state -- including ones all over the Capital Region -- are coal tar byproducts now known to threaten ground and surface water. Niagara Mohawk Power Corp., which legally left the deposits behind generations ago, has begun the arduous task of relocating and cleaning up the oozing black masses with the help of state environmental and health officials.

It is expected to take two to three years to identify, test and remove all the deposits.

Locally, plants producing crude gas by burning coal were located in North Albany, Schenectady, two sites in Troy, Glens Falls, Saratoga Springs, Gloversville, Glens Falls and Hudson.

NiMo told the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency cleanup would cost $25 million a site, or $550 million over the five to seven years of a process that began in 1992. Company spokesman Nicholas J. Lyman said early evidence indicates the cost will be much lower.

Most of the cost will be recovered from consumers' electric bills.

``What these plants did was generate a form of crude gas that contained a form of hazardous substances,'' said John Spellman, an environmental monitor at the state Department of Environmental Conservation. ``They disposed of these hazardous substances at the site.''

Among the chemicals DEC has found in the residue are benzene, xylene, toluene, polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons and cyanide.

Spokeswoman Claire Pospisil said the state Health Department's role is to monitor the dangers of the residue to drinking water. As yet, there has been no evidence that leaching of the materials has jeopardized any surface water, Spellman said.

Though most of the residue is buried so well that NiMo historical records and employee interviews were needed to locate it, some of the ooze -- at a riverside site near the Menands Bridge, for instance -- is creeping to the surface.

Lyman said three sites a year will be tackled on a staggered schedule. The North Albany site at 1125 Broadway, and the site near the Menands bridge, on Water Street in Troy, were begun this fall.

Lyman said the effort is complicated by several factors. Deposits can be difficult to find, they can exist on sites no longer owned by the utility, and the sites may have been used for many other functions in the years since the contamination was left. The Troy site, near the landmark riverside gas holding tank with a winking face, is one example.

``The whole area in the mid- to late 1800s and into the 20th century was iron manufacturing, coke works, industrial complex,'' Lyman said. ``We're concerned with the manufactured gas end because we, or our predecessors, bought out those operations and might be asked to clean up contamination that's not ours.''

In cases where previous owners are partly responsible for the pollution, Lyman said NiMo will pursue grants from the federal environmental Superfund.

But the majority of the sites are still NiMo properties, he said.

``These tend to be sites where we have a service center, where crews come and gather in the morning and get their trucks, or where service reps get their assignments,'' he said.

The coal tar residue can be recycled for use in blacktopping. Contracts for use as asphalt will be pursued to recoup some of the cleanup cost.