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DEC planning to meet with small group of Air Brake residents

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State health and environmental officials, under pressure from the city and residents to address concerns about toxic chemicals dumped at the former New York Air Brake site, are planning to meet a handful of north side neighbors in a closed-door session this week.

On Friday, Scott W. Barker, one of the group’s organizers, confirmed that only he and three others from the group are to meet Thursday with representatives from the departments of Health and Environmental Conservation. City Manager Sharon A. Addison was also asked to attend.

But the public and the media are not invited to the gathering, even though some residents recently complained that DEC for years failed to keep them informed about contamination at the site off Starbuck Avenue and did not release enough public documents about it.

In an email message Friday, DEC spokeswoman Wendy A. Rosenbach said it was agreed that “it would be more productive” to have a smaller meeting with community members.

Ms. Rosenbach also said the private meeting already was being planned before the agency received a letter from Mayor Jeffrey E. Graham on Thursday requesting the agency hold a public forum to better answer residents’ questions. DEC did not have time to respond to the mayor’s request because the agency had just received it, she said.

“This smaller meeting is a preliminary step to setting up any subsequent public meeting or meetings,” she wrote.

The group of residents has asked the city to join it in demanding the DEC provide more information about what happened at Air Brake and about the contaminants that ended up in nearby Kelsey Creek.

Mr. Barker said he does not object that so few members of the residents’ group will be invited to attend this week’s meeting, as long as a public meeting is held later. He said he just wants DEC to listen to their concerns and look at the documents they have collected.

Before the DEC meeting, the residents intend to meet with the city manager on Tuesday to give her the many documents that have been collected on the issue, Mr. Barker said.

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. The group wants DEC to conduct more tests.

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.

A day after about 45 residents attended Tuesday night’s Watertown City Council meeting, the mayor sent a letter to DEC Commissioner Joseph Martens urging the DEC to provide a public forum to explain what has happened at the site and answer north side residents’ questions about contamination.

On Thursday afternoon, Ms. Rosenbach said DEC officials had not made up their mind whether to hold a public forum. By Friday, DEC officials seemed to bow to the pressure and now may have a forum.

“If I had (a public meeting), then they should,” Mr. Graham said, referring to the council meeting.

The mayor initially decided to send the letter after claiming city officials do not have the expertise to answer the highly technical questions residents have been asking. He also contended DEC officials should do more than suggest that concerned residents go to an agency website to view documents and meet individually with DEC officials.

Mr. Barker, who grew up on East Division Street and now lives in Columbus, Ohio; his brother, James P. Barker, and their former neighbor, Andrew G. Williams, started asking questions about the contaminants after realizing earlier this year that they suffered from the same symptoms of a nerve disorder. The brothers lived a couple of doors from Mr. Williams when they were children.

Since then, more than 200 people have joined the group and now communicate on its Facebook page about their concerns.

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 company’s 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 DEC’s website.

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