PLATTSBURGH -- State officials told the public Wednesday night that it's only an odor problem.

The chemicals in the air released from a cleanup site of contaminated soil near the Saranac River are not at unsafe levels. Still, they said, work has momentarily halted and measures are being taken to reduce the odor problem, which caused Plattsburgh City School officials to evacuate students from Stafford Middle School Monday.

"It would have to be at much higher levels than we are experiencing to cause long-term health effects," said Wendy Kuehner, a sanitary engineer for the state Health Department.

But that did little to ease concerns as 44 Stafford Middle School students went home sick Wednesday, staff members reported headaches and dizziness, and some residents at the public meeting say they know of children and elderly people near the cleanup site who are ill. It is unclear if all the problems stem from the cleanup, but residents are worried.

"These odors are toxins, and they do have long-term health effects," said Susan Ford. "Children should not be exposed to this."

The odors originate from the cleanup of contaminated soil that began this past November at the site of a former manufactured-gas plant on Saranac Street. The area has elevated levels of coal tar, a by-product of gas produced at the site while it was in operation during the first half of the 20th century.

New York State Electric & Gas is responsible for the cleanup and air monitoring. NYSEG hired contractors to do the work while the state Department of Environmental Conservation is the regulatory authority and has an inspector there full time. The City of Plattsburgh also owns part of the site.

Residents around the cleanup area have complained about the odor, some saying it is making them sick, and on Monday, officials evacuated Stafford Middle School when students and staff reported nausea, headaches and sore and itchy eyes and throats.

"This building has a unique feature," Plattsburgh City School Superintendent James Short said at the meeting held at Stafford Middle School. "Our major air handling units all face the Saranac River."

Work has been temporarily halted at the site.

The work is being done because contaminants in the soil have been leaking into and collecting in the Saranac River.

"Everyone is in favor of continuing the project," said George Heitzman, an environmental engineer with DEC.

But there is an odor problem, he said, and that is unacceptable.

Plans so far are to install carbon filters on the school's air intakes, install additional air monitors to check the air intake at the school, excavate in areas of lesser contamination, limit the size of excavation, re-evaluate soil-handling operations and postpone work in lagoons that held coal tar until fall and winter.

There were still trace odors at Stafford Middle School Wednesday, with staff members reporting headaches and nausea and 44 students going home.

But Heitzman said three air monitors continuously check the air, finding no dangerous levels of contaminants, and are moved when the wind changes direction.

Some people at the meeting expressed concerns that the monitors only measure the air at precise moments, but not how much contaminants accumulate over long periods.

"You can smell the contaminants at levels much below what is unsafe," said Kuehner. "But that does not mean that odors are acceptable."

She stressed that people react to odors in a variety of ways, but ultimately, it is an irritant, and the body tells you it doesn't like it by exhibiting various symptoms. But she said once the odor stops symptoms will subside.

"We don't expect any long-term health effects from this."

She admitted that as far as toxicity, the chemicals clearly aren't good for people, but it takes a lengthy period of exposure to develop long-term health effects.

"There is no doubt that these chemicals are not good for you," she said. "That is why the remediation is being conducted in the first place. So people can be safe."

But some people at the meeting doubted what they were being told. They questioned whether the job was being done on the cheap and wondered why the precautions that are going to be taken now weren't taken in the first place.

Others just feared what was in the air.

"I've lived in the area 15 years, and my son has been very ill," said Candi Malpass, who lives on Smith Street.

Her 13-year-old son used to hike the area, fish in the river, wade in the water and collect little black stones.

But one day he started getting headaches and he hasn't recovered since. A team of doctors are working to determine what is wrong with him, with a brain scan scheduled this week.

She and a few others at the meeting said they know of people near the cleanup site who have been diagnosed with cancer. They've also discovered an unusually high number of dead birds and groundhogs.

"It is not an odor issue," Malpass said. "It is much deeper than that. There are ill people in the area."

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