Mayor Jeffrey E. Graham has written to the head of the state Department of Environmental Conservation asking the agency to do more to respond to concerns raised by residents about the former New York Air Brake site off Starbuck Avenue.
In a letter Wednesday to DEC Commissioner Joseph Martens, the mayor said DEC should provide a public forum to explain what has happened at the site and answer north side residents questions about contamination left there years ago.
We have many people who rightly or wrongly think their health has been impacted by this site and feel there are still environmental factors that could affect their health, Mr. Graham wrote.
In 2008, DEC found unacceptable levels of trichloroethylene, or TCE an industrial solvent used at the Air Brake facility on Starbuck Avenue decades ago in four on-site buildings and a home at 431 E. Hoard St., which subsequently was equipped with an air-mitigation system. TCE is a carcinogen that also might cause nerve disorders.
City Manager Sharon A. Addison and city staff met with local DEC officials this week to find out more about the issue. But Mr. Graham said city officials do not have the expertise to answer the highly technical questions residents have been asking. DEC officials provided a handout about the issue at Tuesday nights Watertown City Council meeting but sent no one to attend. DEC suggested that concerned residents go to an agency website to view documents and reports that the agency had completed over the years.
But Mr. Graham said Thursday that residents deserved more, and urged a more assertive outreach to residents by DEC.
People are worried about their kids, he said. People are worried about their property.
DEC spokeswoman Wendy A. Rosenbach said Thursday afternoon that the agency had just received the mayors letter and that a decision regarding a public meeting has not yet been made. However, a private meeting is being set up with several concerned community members, state Health Department officials and Ms. Addison to discuss the situation.
In recent weeks, residents and former neighbors have told stories about family members suffering nerve disorders, cancer and birth defects. They said they believe TCE got into the ground and spread off site and into Kelsey Creek.
At this point, it has become a perception is reality issue to an extent, although there certainly are legitimate questions that the citizens are asking, the mayor wrote.
A group voicing the environmental concerns had asked the city to join it in demanding that DEC provide more information about what happened at Air Brake and in Kelsey Creek. It wants DEC to conduct more tests.
Andrew G. Williams, one of the organizers of the residents efforts, thanked the mayor for getting involved and urging DEC to communicate more with the group.
Its a great first step in what were asking the city to do, he said Wednesday. Thats all we really wanted from the city.
Mr. Williams, who grew up on East Division Street and now lives on Washington Street, and two brothers, James P. and Scott W. Barker, started asking questions about the contaminants after realizing earlier this year that all three suffered from the same symptoms of a nerve disorder. The three lived just a couple of doors from each other when they were growing up.
In urging more testing, James Barker said Thursday that DEC officials seemed to have made up their minds already before conducting the 2008 tests, so they may have failed to look for what was really going with the site.
Its easy to miss the white elephant in the room when youre looking for pink giraffes, he said.
In 2008, the state Department of Health and DEC tested more than 50 structures, including four buildings on the Air Brake site, 44 houses, North and Starbuck elementary schools and a church, for TCE vapor intrusions. About 1,200 parcels were in the testing area, which primarily extended north and west of the companys Starbuck Avenue campus.
In 1995, DEC dredged Kelsey Creek and removed contaminants and soil. Those were taken to the Purdy Avenue and industrial landfills, where they were sufficiently capped off, according to DECs website.