In the second half of the 19th century, streets and homes in Athens were lighted by gas piped in from a central repository.

The gas came from a process that made coal into two products, of which the gas was one. The other was coke, a combustible fuel that was popular when very early environmental regulations required that railroad locomotives consume their own smoke. While coke didn’t consume its own smoke, it produced less of it than coal did and therefore was deemed acceptable.

The process was done locally. With ready access to coal via barges on the Hocking River, and with the railroad depot nearby, Station Street was an ideal location for the Athens Gas Electricity and Light Company to set up shop. It operated its plant at the intersection of, then and now, Station and Factory streets, its pipelines stretching throughout the city.

Technology developed quickly in the late 1800s and early 20th century, and by 1902 the company sold its site and offices to Athens Lumber, and the place became a lumber yard. The company itself came under ownership of Columbia Gas, itself now owned by a company named NiSource.

And that would be that but for the current attention to potentially harmful residues that might become apparent in unhappy ways decades – or in this case even more than a century – later. This explains why a tall drill was erected last week on Station Street. It will be there through this week, as the company takes core samples to determine what if anything was left behind by the Athens Gas Electricity and Light Company.

“We’re drilling nine holes,” said Jody Weikart, a Cincinnati-based geologist conducting the survey for Columbia Gas of Ohio. “We’re making core samples.”

Weikart and Cortney Rector, NiSource environmental coordinator, were collecting the samples for shipment to a laboratory in Indianapolis, where they will be analyzed to determine if anything there could affect the water table or anything else. The drill is sampling to a depth of 50 feet.

Interviewed in the steamy mid-afternoon last Wednesday, the two were asked if a picnic-style cooler near the drill held plenty of cold drinking water.

“That cooler is actually full of dirt,” laughed Weikart. The samples must be sealed and kept cool lest any petroleum byproducts they contain evaporate, skewing the lab results.

“Our car is full of coolers full of dirt,” said Rector, of Columbus, pointing to the large SUV next to the pair.

The testing, Rector said, is precautionary, designed to discover any potential hazards before they become a problem. She said that there are no results yet, and the company says the lab report will be in hand this fall. “At similar plants around Ohio,” the company says in a handout, “our tests have not found any immediate health concerns.”

In addition to the samples being taken, monitoring wells are being installed, so the company can check back over time to see if any hazardous substances have leeched out of the surrounding ground.

“We want to be sure there is no contamination left over from the plant that needs to be cleaned up,” said the company statement.

The drilling and sample collection is scheduled to be complete by June 30.

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