City to test Apex Tools site for contamination

CORTLAND, N.Y. – Noting its past struggles with industries skipping town, the city of Cortland plans to hire an independent engineer to look for signs of soil contamination at the site of the former Apex Tools plant in Cortland.

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At a meeting of Cortland Common Council last week, city lawmakers voted unanimously to issue a request for proposals for environmental consulting services to test for possible contamination at the now-shuttered plant on Cleveland Street.

A once prominent employer in Cortland County, Apex Tools closed the doors of its Cortland plant on the city’s east end on Nov. 1, leaving about 90 employees jobless.

The Apex Tools facility on Cleveland Street on Tuesday afternoon (Peter Blanchard/Cortland Voice)

A view of the Apex Tools plant from East Garfield Street on Tuesday afternoon (Peter Blanchard/Cortland Voice)

Given that the property has seen a long history of industrial use, Apex Tools is exercising a great deal of caution and prudence in decommissioning the plant, according to Mack Cook, the city of Cortland’s director of administration and finance.

But by hiring its own engineers, the city can ensure that the company’s environmental testing is accurate, Cook said at meeting of Common Council last week.

“One thing we have learned…is that there exists the possibility that that land will come back to city ownership or local control,” Cook said. “It may be prudent for the city to have independent assistance during this process, so that if we take ownership of that property, we know what we’re taking.”

To put it another way, the city is ensuring that “the skeletons in the closet are flushed out now while the company is in town,” Cook said.

“Basically, the city is saying, ‘Okay, we appreciate [Apex] doing the environmental review, but to protect ourselves, we still want to have our own people review your findings,” said Garry VanGorder, executive director of the Cortland County Industrial Development Agency.

Lessons of the past

Cook referred to the case of Buckbee-Mears Company, a manufacturer of aperture masks used in color TV picture tubes that abruptly closed its Cortland plant in the mid-2000s, leaving 200 people without jobs.

“They really just dropped the ball and went home,” VanGorder said of the closure.

The site of the former Buckbee-Mears plant on Kellogg Road. After the company closed the facility, the property was purchased by local realtor David Yaman (photo courtesy of Anderson Auctioneers).

The site of the former Buckbee-Mears Company plant on Kellogg Road. After the company closed the facility, the property was purchased by local realtor David Yaman (photo courtesy of Anderson Auctioneers).

The company also left behind a property littered with hazardous waste and caustic chemicals. The property was declared a “Superfund” site by the EPA, which ended up spending roughly $8 million on soil testing and cleanup efforts until 2012. The city ended up writing off nearly $1.2 million in back taxes on the property, according to Cook.

After the property was effectively remediated, local realtor David Yaman purchased the property in 2014 and is still actively seeking new tenants for the site, according to Gorder. (Yaman also purchased the former Smith Corona plant in Cortlandville for $4 million in 2009.)

“It’s a nice blank canvas we’re trying to market to other areas of the state,” VanGorder said.

Will Apex be the city’s next costly cleanup project?

The city plans to put out requests for proposals for an independent engineering firm to test the soil on the Apex property for contamination, but it appears unlikely that it will ever be declared a Superfund site, according to Cook.

The city will be seeking grant funding from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, which offers assistance to municipalities involved in soil remediation projects.

“Our goal is to be very proactive and make sure that a very large property on the east end of the city is well taken care of,” Mayor Brian Tobin said at a meeting of Common Council last week.

“It’s been a long struggle for everyone as these old sites come offline,” VanGorder said. “There are decades and decades of use that probably wasn’t appropriately monitored.”

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