The Sound Observer

     Over one hundred years ago, scientist and inventor Nikola Tesla stood on the land in Shoreham that he called Wardenclyffe, and imagined a tower that would rise over 180 feet above the landscape. Eventually, with funding from financier J.P. Morgan, Tesla began the work of building that tower, which he intended to use for communication and for transmission of electromagnetic waves.  The tower was never totally completed, but some of the base on which it stood still remains, as does the laboratory where Tesla worked, a building designed by Tesla’s friend, noted architect Stanford White.

     That was in 1902.  Now, in 2006, the property is owned by Agfa Corporation, which purchased the property from Peerless Photo Products.  Peerless, and later, Agfa, processed photographic materials at the site.  In that process, chemicals including cadmium were thrown away in catch basins and in the base of what was the tower.  The base of the tower was composed in part, of a large hole in the ground that extended about 120 feet deep.  This tower base became a convenient site for the disposal of chemicals and other items, too.

     For over a decade, under the direction of the New York Department of Environmental Conservation, Agfa has been engaged in planning a cleanup of the site, in which contaminated soils are removed, clean fill is trucked in, and the tower base is capped to prevent leaching of potentially hazardous materials into the groundwater.  That process is nearing completion, and the soil removal and replacement at several locations on the site have been accomplished.

     The tower base, however, has presented some unique challenges.  Agfa and the DEC have been sensitive to the preservation of the tower base foundation and walls, considering that future technology may provide a way to excavate the base in a safe way, while maintaining the archeological and scientific integrity of the base.  In the process of sealing and capping the contaminated areas of the base soils, large chunks of concrete have been encountered, preventing some of the original plan of sealing and capping from being implemented.  As a result, Agfa and the DEC have been exploring alternatives.

     “We had a slight delay due to technical problems with the tower base.  It wasn’t constructed as we envisioned,” said Charlene Graff, Agfa’s engineer in charge of the project.

     The excavation of the tower base is wider than Agfa originally intended, shaped similarly to a funnel: wider at the top than at the base.

     “We found significant debris and concrete.  Some of the pieces were over one foot thick and eight feet long.  It appears to be quite old, and doesn’t have any rebar or reinforcement, so we are unsure about where it came from.  It might have sloughed off the tower base,” she said.

     “We’ve requested the state to allow us to use a different technology to deliver the stabilizer,” said Graff. “Originally we intended to use an augur technique.  Now we’d like to use jet-grouting equipment.  It allows us to deliver the stabilizing solution.  A much smaller probe goes down, with much greater success.  Instead of a mixing or paddling motion it uses an injection method.”

     “They looked around and found out there is another method to deliver the cement mixture [stabilizer] that is a new delivery method,” said Girish Desai, DEC director of the project.

     “We want to do it right,” said Desai.  He also said the excavation of the tower base is about 55 feet across and 28 feet deep.  Once approval is given for the change in delivery method for the stabilizer, it will take several weeks for the equipment to arrive.

     “A few months ago we were ahead of schedule.  Then the problems with the concrete in the tower base were discovered.  Now it will take longer than we planned,” said Graff.

     According to Graff, most of the rest of the excavation is completed, except for the portion to be done on LIPA’s right-of-way and some soil replacement on other sections.  She said the last parts will be completed as weather permits, with soil replacement and seeding perhaps possible in April.  Asked about the air quality monitoring that was done during the earlier soil removal, Graff said there were no problems.

     “The air readings showed no levels of anything were raised,” she said.The future of the land, when the cleanup is complete, is uncertain. Agfa and Brookhaven Town have discussed a potential donation of the land to the Town. Discussion has also been held between Brookhaven Town and Friends of Science East, Inc., a local group that would like to establish a science museum and Tesla archive in the old laboratory when the work is completed.  The Tesla Science Center at Wardenclyffe would house memorabilia of Tesla and his work, and offer programs and exhibits for students and the general public on science-related topics, along with community space for meetings and other activities.  The Shoreham Hamlet Study includes the concept of a science museum at the site, and there has been general support in the community for that possibility.