July 24, 2013

Editorial: Steer clear of river work


---- — Some of us here at the newspaper can recall, in 1998, a heartbreaking conversation with a mother standing on the banks of the Saranac River in Plattsburgh as responders searched for her missing daughter.

The SUNY Plattsburgh student had disappeared while tubing down the river, and her mother had rushed to Plattsburgh as soon as she had gotten word.

“They usually find the people are safe, right?” she asked our reporter, tears filling her hopeful eyes.

We were there when they removed her daughter’s body from the river.

We recall this wrenchingly sad moment because of new dangers on the Saranac River this summer.

A record-setting month of rainfall and abundant wind and thunderstorms have turned area rivers into churning, rushing waterways clogged with branches, tree trunks and floating debris.

Swimmers, boaters and tubers have already been warned that the lakes and rivers could be dangerous — from usually calm waters turned to rapids to underwater snarls waiting to overturn watercraft.

Now, another peril has been added to the list. A cleanup effort has been underway in the City of Plattsburgh for seven years at the site of a former coal-tar pit that had been used by a manufactured-gas plant. New York State Electric and Gas is overseeing the project, with the length of time testament to how terribly polluted the earth was there. You can see the large work area from Saranac and Pine streets.

The Saranac River snakes through the site. A dam has been placed in the river, behind Plattsburgh City Police Department, to divert the water so crews can continue their cleanup. It is an imposing structure made of steel sheeting and concrete blocks. Imagine the risk to any tubers who might come flying down the river.

Warning signs tell everyone — including people wanting to tube, fish or kayak — that they must get out of the water across from 90 Pine St., which is near the intersection with Water Street.

Temporary stairs have been installed from that spot up to the road. From there, people can walk on the River Walk along Pine Street to the Kennedy Bridge on Broad Street and re-enter the water.

Police plan to arrest anyone who trespasses in the prohibited zone. And it will be a misdemeanor charge of third-degree criminal trespass.

That order is in place for the rest of the summer. So no matter how tempting it is to seek those cool waters when the temperatures soar, people must avoid this section of the Saranac completely.

They should also use caution on any area water body and be sure they are wearing life preservers — the No. 1 way to prevent drownings.

Too many times, over the years, we have seen the anguish of people who have lost a loved one to drowning. It’s something we hope never to see again.