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Amherst is ready to write the final chapter in a paint-dumping controversy that flared during last year's bitter contest for town highway superintendent.

The town Engineering Department tonight will ask the Town Board to approve spending about $9,000 to excavate and remove several hundred gallons of paint believed buried behind the Highway Department since the mid-1980s.

The cost estimate does not include disposal of contaminated soil or analysis of soil and Ellicott Creek sediment samples. Officials emphasized that only excavation of the pit will determine what was dumped there and in what quantity.

The state Department of Environmental Conservation approved the cleanup plan Sept. 13. It includes digging a test pit to determine soil conditions, installing of a ground-water monitoring well, and excavating the perimeter of the paint dump to determine the extent of the contamination.

If contamination is not extensive and is well confined, crews will remove the paint and soil. If contamination is extensive, work will be stopped while a disposal plan is prepared, officials said.

During last year's election campaign, Thomas J. Wik, then an Engineering Department official, accused the town's longtime highway superintendent, Patrick G. Lucey, of ordering the burial of about 2,000 gallons of lead-based paint and unknown amounts of toluene, a toxic paint thinner.

Lucey said he had not known about the burial of the spoiled paint until August 1995, when he was contacted by the DEC. He also claimed the DEC was tipped by James Binner, a highway worker who was managing Wik's campaign.

Lucey said his own investigation indicated about eight or 10 55-gallon drums -- or 440 to 550 gallons -- of paint were buried and that it probably wasn't lead-based. He was highly skeptical of Wik's claim that toluene was also disposed of in the same manner.

Last November, Wik, a Republican, defeated Lucey, a Democrat. Wik subsequently appointed Binner deputy highway superintendent at almost double his former salary.

According to papers filed in connection with the upcoming cleanup project, "Highway Department employees interviewed recalled one instance of illegal dumping of highway striping paint, circa 1984-86.

"The workers claimed the contents of eight to 10 55-gallon drums of yellow and white highway striping paint were ordered . . . dumped into a 10-foot-deep, 15-foot diameter pit. The barrels were then crushed and back-filled into the pit," according to the report.

Last fall Lucey said two employees -- one now dead, the other retired -- apparently had been responsible for burying the paint 10 years earlier. The paint had spoiled during winter storage, he said.

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