The Green Dragon
The Unity of Biology and Ecology with Spirit
Sacred Space : Dragon & Ice Castle
The Dragon and the Ice Castle
Rediscovery of Sacred Space in the Finger Lakes

Part One: Chapter Fourteen
Environmental Intelligence
Wednesday, February 11, 1988
© 1989 David Yarrow

Wednesday The Syracuse New Times carried its report of my press conference. Page 3, reserved for local news, had a photo of my thin, intense face peering at the reader as I held a jar of milky water in front of photos of scrap metal piles. The caption read, Concerned environmentalist David Yarrow: Proposed Petropolis mall could squeeze toxins to the surface. I didn't like the label environmentalist. It sounded dry, lifeless and too scientific. I preferred the title naturalist since it suggested a living world of plants, animals, insects and Earth.

Since David Yarrow of Syracuse's Center for Self Healing grew up near the Meadowbrook site found to have the highest concentrations of PCBs in the state, he knows how slowly the environmental bureaucracy moves. A year has passed since the Meadowbrook PCB discovery, and governmental agencies have juggled jurisdiction ever since without coming up with sufficient funding for any solution.

Yarrow's worried about toxic dangers posed by the proposed Oil City mall. Last week he asked public figures to slow developer Robert Congel to avoid "a rush into disaster."

In a demonstration Yarrow put a sponge filled with soy sauce on a plate, then placed a brick on the sponge. The soy sauce oozed out from under the brick and over the edge of the plate.

In like fashion, Yarrow said, a stagnant body of water full of toxic chemicals has been held 50 years in sponge-like landfill directly beneath the proposed mall site. "Several hundred tons of asphalt, equipment, structures and inventory on the site will likely compress the soft, spongy fill and squeeze stagnant water up into the mall and out into surrounding soil, most likely west into the Barge Canal, and then Onondaga Lake," Yarrow said.

Pyramid's Supplementary Environmental Impact Statement lists toxic substances present, but maintains, "There's no significant contamination problems." Pyramid's plans call for paving the site to cap off potential danger.

Yarrow sent water samples from the site to a laboratory for analysis. He also suspects several scrapped electric transformers are buried on the proposed Carousel Center site—creating a high concentration of PCBs there—and has alerted the federal EPA and state Dept. of Environmental Conservation. Investigations have been promised, he said.

"The recent Winterfest provides a perfect metaphor for the situation," Yarrow said. Citing Scandinavian mythology in which dragons represent the power of the earth, he observed, "The dragon in the ice castle melted. They replaced it with an ark, a vessel to carry us into a new world."

A second piece followed about other opposition to the mall:

Yarrow's objections come independent of the Eagan-led Young Business People of Greater Syracuse which last week continued its appeal to public officials to slow the Carousel steamroller, filing a petition signed by 198 downtown retail business owners with Common Council President James Walsh. Originally addressed to Mayor Young, the petition calls for appointment of a nonpartisan commission to investigate economic and environmental impacts of the proposed mall

Based on Metropolitan Development Association's directory, YBP claims petitioners represent 76% of downtown retailers. The petition asked, "Until the commission's findings are thoroughly debated and discussed, we request the city nor any of its agencies take action to allow the Oil City mall to proceed."

Although Mayor Young, in his State of the City speech this week vowed, "No final decisions have been made, and all questions of concerned citizens will be addressed," it looks like neither he nor the Council has power to stop the Carousel's roll. At this point, only the "designated lead agency"—Syracuse Industrial Development Agency—has official approval on whether the project proceeds.

SIDA, composed of city Finance Commissioner William McIntyre, city Corporation Counsel Frank Harrigan, city Community Development Director David Michel, and Chamber of Commerce President Erwin Schultz, seems unlikely to delay it. It already received staff recommendation to approve a $120 million bond for the mall, made no move to extend the Feb. 8 deadline for public comment on the issue, and has no agenda items pending to discuss opposing views.

The next afternoon, while downtown, an attorney told me Bruce Kenan would be speaking about Pyramid's Oil City Project at 7pm at the SUNY College of Environmental Science.

"Where's he speaking?" I asked.

"Fourth floor of Baker Lab," he replied.

"Really! My father had his office on that floor for 25 years. I know the place well. Seems like I'd better show up."

I had only met this lawyer the previous week. He had a rough, abrasive voice and the aura of a feisty general looking for a battle. He advised, "Put away the kid gloves. Hit Pyramid where it hurts. They have no reason to be reasonable. Pyramid only understands power."

That evening I cooked dinner early and left my friends to enjoy the meal while I drove to the College. I was a few minutes late and the room was filled with students. I took a vacant seat near the back of the room. Behind me sat the lawyer. I handed him my press release and gave my attention to the speaker. Bruce Kenan wasn't in sight, but Pat Mannion, another Pyramid partner, was talking.

Pat explained the Oil City Project, referring to large sketches to show Pyramid's plans. There was also a 3x4 foot aerial photo of Onondaga Lake, Marley's and Oil City. It was an impressive presentation about an ambitious project. Pat emphasized Pyramid's strategy would remove an environmental eyesore and bring human community back to the lakeshore.

Pat then introduced Ed Kellogg, site engineer for the mall, who described its architectural design. Carousel Center would be their largest—one million square feet, three stories high, crowned by a glass observation tower. Because of high winds off the lake and odors from the sewage plant upwind, the observation deck would be enclosed. The mall would utilize several unique design features, incorporating the best of the 21 malls they'd built around the Northeast. Obviously Pyramid intended to make their hometown mall their flagship, the biggest and best

I was surprised when he said the design wasn't finished. They intend construction to begin in the spring, only two months away, yet they hadn't finished the design? This seemed odd, and gave a glimpse into Pyramid's inner workings.

Pat then opened the class for questions .from students. One asked if there were problems with the water table, since the site was immediately beside Onondaga Lake. Ed answered, "Yes, this area is saturated with water. Engineering data from construction of the sewer plant and I-81 show soils in this area are unstable and water logged. Our studies show the site has a water table as close as five feet to the surface. It's hard to get data on the site since there's never been significant construction on it."

He continued, "Because of geological conditions under the site, we can't excavate foundations as in most construction. Instead, we'll put the entire structure on pilings. We haven't finished the engineering plan yet but preliminary calculations call for driving five miles of piles in the ground to support a three story structure. Each piling will go down 100 feet, perhaps 125 feet."

I thought, "Try 150 feet. Or more at the west end, Ed." I wondered how Pyramid planned to plant a massive mall on a site that provided such unstable, wet footing. Sunday I'd spoken to an engineer who, 20 years earlier, installed Marley's hydraulic press used to crunch car bodies into cubes. He told me pilings for that small structure had gone 150 feet deep, and this was on the east edge of the site which offered firmer footings than the west.

Ed concluded, "Pilings add greatly to the cost of the mall but we have no choice given the soil conditions. We're prepared to make this investment because we believe in the importance of this project to the future of the city."

I thought, "They're really serious about this. Five miles of piles will cost a lot of copper. I get the impression they're willing to spend more to get this baby up."

From behind, the attorney boomed a challenge. He asked about the tax plan for the mall. He wanted to know who would finance it. Where was the money going to come from?

Pat carefully explained Pyramid was asking the city for $120 million in public bonds, but if this proved unworkable, Pyramid was prepared to invest its own money in construction. I reflected, "They want to build this monster mall bad."

Like a bull, the attorney was unrelenting. "If public money is used, won't taxpayers be footing the bill? Why should the public finance private commercial development?"

Pat calmly explained that public bonds commonly finance many commercial and industrial developments. Pat insisted a successful mall would benefit the city by bringing commercial business back which was lost to suburbs. The Oil City Project would yield public benefit by removing unsightly industry from the lake shore, increasing property value and spurring new development in an area in decline.

The lawyer challenged Pat, claiming the mall would injure downtown business by drawing shoppers away. Pat countered that Pyramid's own studies indicated the mall wouldn't adversely affect downtown. The lawyer loudly spurned this, calling for an independent evaluation, not one paid for by Pyramid to prove Pyramid's own point. Finally Pat turned the argument aside by calling on a student.

A student asked, "Given the place is called Oil City, might oil and gas trapped underground create fire hazards?"

Pat replied, "Yes, that's a problem we're looking into. We don't have a clear assessment yet, but our studies of the mall site turned up negative. But we'll still look into that possibility before building elsewhere in Oil City. In fact, just this week there was an oil spill at the Hess facility immediately beside the mall site, but they pumped all the oil out of the ground."

In shock, my eyebrows rose at this admission. "Really, Pat?" I said silently. "Are you sure they got all the oil out? What happened to any residue they didn't recover? Where's it now?"

I raised my hand and was recognized. "Given that Marley's has been an industrial dump for 25 years, and a city dump before that, aren't you concerned there might be toxic wastes buried under the site? For example, I've been to Marley's myself and located one site where several electric transformers are buried which probably contain PCBs."

Pat answered, "We spent lots of money on geologists and engineers who studied this site carefully. They put over 100 holes in the site, including trenches, groundwater bores and soil samples. We've found minimal amounts of industrial residuals, but nothing which can't be safely contained by the asphalt cap which will cover the site. Since we'll be putting the mall on piles, we won't excavate into the site." Pat quickly fielded another question.

The question and answer session ended and a number of students stayed to look over the maps and sketches, and ask more questions. I handed out copies of my new press release to students. I walked slowly to the front and listened to Pat talking to students. I got a chance to speak.

"Hello Pat. David Yarrow." We shook hands.

"I figured it was you when you mentioned transformers."

"What are you going to do about the transformers? Those things undoubtedly contain PCBs, otherwise they wouldn't be buried so deep at a isolated edge of the site." I pointed on the aerial photo where they are. 'There's five buried at the north edge, and I think there's others buried in this area near where soil samples turned up 30 parts per million PCBs. One soil sample may not mean much by itself and might be safely covered by your asphalt cap. But if there's several gallons buried under the site, you've got a problem."

Pat, by his voice and posture, seemed to discount my comment, but gave a positive reply, "We're confident in work done by our engineers. If any contamination is uncovered, we'll evaluate how to clean it up."

"I haven't surveyed the entire site," I said, "but I believe there's other burial sites under Marley's. I suggest you proceed cautiously before building there. I'm willing to locate other areas of contamination."

Pat seemed at a loss to answer this offer. He hesitated, and a student interrupted with a different question.

I decided not to press my issue, and stepped over to where Ed Kellogg was showing off sketches of the mall. After several minutes, I was able to ask a question. "Say, Ed, do you really think there's no problem with oil and gas under the site?"

"Our groundwater study didn't show significant amounts."

"Yes, but how did you take your samples?" I asked. "If you bore a hole in the ground and insert a pipe in the hole to case it, water will enter the pipe from beneath, so you won't get any oil floating on top of the water table. Then when you insert your sample tube into the cased borehole, you insert the sample tube below the water surface. So once again you'll fail to pick up any oil floating on the surface. I'd strongly advise you to look more carefully at this site. Any pockets of oil trapped on top of the water table will present quite a hazard."
The Dragon and the Ice Castle
Rediscovery of Sacred Space in the Finger Lakes
144 pages, 8.5 x 11 soft cover
available from
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Ed seemed to not grasp this, and assured me Pyramid was "relying on the DEC for their environmental intelligence." It was obvious he wasn't directly involved in the samplings but only reviewed results submitted by contractors.

Startled, I said, "Between you and me, I wouldn't rely on DEC for data on this site. I'm not impressed with DEC's interest to find out what's under Marley's. If I were you, I'd get your own data on this site before investing $150 million."

Ed looked askance at me, put off by my assertion DEC wasn't to be relied on. A student asked a question on another issue and my inquiry was forgotten. I indulged in a chocolate donut. Chewing slowly, I listened several more minutes. Seeing nothing more I could say, I left me with a conviction Pyramid was underestimating the hazards awaiting their Oil City Project.

David YarrowTurtle — updated 3/21/2000