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North side residents: Air Brake contamination results were manipulated

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Test results may have been manipulated to indicate that contaminants were not found in homes and two city schools near the former New York Air Brake site when other evidence showed the contrary, according to the group of residents who have threatened to file a lawsuit against the Starbuck Avenue company.

The small group of former and current north side residents say they discovered discrepancies after obtaining thousands of documents from the state Department of Environmental Conservation in recent months.

After going through the information in December, the group detected that some data from the state Department of Health showed no evidence of tricholoelerene, or TCE, in the homes and two schools in the neighborhood, whereas other documents indicated that was not the case, according to a press release distributed by the group.

Health Department and DEC press officials did not return messages seeking comment Friday. The discrepancies occurred only with data involving TCE, the chemical that worries some north side residents because it was dumped at the site for decades, said brothers Scott W. and James P. Barker, who have helped organize legal efforts during the past year. There were no similar issues with the other 51 chemicals tested by the DEC in 2007 and 2008.

Contending that the Health Department “failed the community,” Scott Barker said documents showed that TCE was found in homes and in Starbuck and North elementary schools, but that notices sent to 44 residents failed to report it the homeowners.

While they say they do not know who changed the data, the brothers contend that the data were intentionally manipulated to keep the test results from the public.

“If it was one or two, or even five or six, it could be clerical error,” said Scott Barker, who now lives in Wisconsin but grew up on East Hoard Street. “But not all of them.”

He blames both the state agencies, as the DEC conducted the testing and the letters were on Health Department letterhead.

Dozens of residents have expressed concerns about the thousands of pounds of TCE, an industrial solvent used at the Air Brake plant, dumped at the site decades ago. They fear that the TCE, a carcinogen that can cause nerve disorders, could be trapped in the soil and could still migrate through shallow groundwater and into Kelsey Creek and other nearby tributaries.

In 2008, DEC found unacceptable levels of TCE in four on-site buildings, now owned by the Jefferson County Industrial Development Agency, and a house at 431 E. Hoard St. They were subsequently equipped with air-mitigation systems, and DEC has been monitoring levels since then.

In 2007 and 2008, the Health Department and DEC conducted soil vapor intrusion testing on more than 50 structures, including four buildings on the Air Brake site, 44 houses, North and Starbuck schools and a church for TCE vapor intrusions. The testing determined whether vapor from the contaminants was entering the structures.

In a May 21, 2008, letter to residents, the Health Department stated that the homeowners should not worry about the TCE levels.

“The results indicate that soil vapor intrusion from groundwater contamination at the New York Air Brake site is not currently occurring at your home and is not likely to affect your indoor air quality in the future,” the letters said.

In addition to the letters, each homeowner received an attachment of data called “Sample Results Matrix” that showed the levels for TCE as “ND” — for not detected — in one column on almost all of the properties. A second column includes figures indicating what James Barker said was the designated reporting limit on which the laboratory’s testing equipment was calibrated, and those figures varied considerably by property.

But the group then obtained other documents, or “raw data,” that were not provided to home owners and which show a different story, the brothers said. The two columns are switched on the raw data, completed for the state by Centek Laboratories, a Syracuse company that specializes in soil vapor intrusion analysis. The switched columns occur on all of the test results for the homes and two schools.

He said he has no other explanation for the discrepancies other than that it was done purposely.

“I don’t see any justification other than that,” he said.

The data appeared the same way for the two schools, located within two blocks of the site. On handwritten notes showing the raw data, someone wrote the word “mitigate” for North Elementary School and “monitor” for Starbuck school. James Barker concluded that consultants concluded that some type of cleanup should have been completed at North school, while more tests should have been conducted at the other school. The public was never informed about those conclusions, James Barker said.

Russell Pellegrino, Centek’s director of operations/technical director, said he could not talk about the lab’s work on the tests, citing confidentiality. But he did say he has seen some of the other material posted on the group’s website.

“What I saw, it’s way off base,” he said, stressing he was talking in generalities and not about the work for the Department of Health. “The facts are not right.”

The brothers and their former neighbor, Andrew G. Williams, have retained the Vititoe Law Group, the California law firm made famous in the movie about environmental activist Erin Brockovich, to represent them. Los Angeles environmental attorney Thomas V. Girardi also is involved in the case.

If the case goes forward, the lawsuit most likely would be against New York Air Brake; Knorr-Bremse Group, the company’s current parent company; and SPX Corp., the North Carolina company that was involved in previous cleanup efforts.

So far, about 400 residents and former residents have returned retainer forms and may join the lawsuit. The law firm is expected to file a notice of claim, the first step in filing a lawsuit, later this year.

In responding to resident complaints, DEC announced plans to conduct a 10-year review of the cleanup of Kelsey Creek and nearby tributaries that is expected to be completed this spring. The state Department of Health also may conduct a study on patterns of birth defects, cancer and low birth rates possibly associated with pollutants dumped at the site.

In 1995, DEC dredged Kelsey Creek and removed contaminants and soil. Those were taken to the Purdy Avenue and industrial landfills, where they were capped off. But the group of concerned residents contend the clean-up was not extensive enough.

The attorneys also intend to conduct their own testing this spring. They are looking for volunteers living on the north side who would agree to have their homes tested for soil vapor intrusion.

New York Air Brake Co. supplies air brake and train control systems to the railroad industry.

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