Hickory Woods residents unleashed a torrent of anger at city officials Saturday during a protest that sought advice from Love Canal activist Lois Gibbs.
South Council Member Mary M. Martino barely had left the meeting in downtown Buffalo when Gibbs assailed her and other officials for delaying relocation of the 80 families in the chemically contaminated South Buffalo subdivision.
"It's just like 21 years ago when I look out at this crowd of families and children," Gibbs said, referring to the chemical dump disaster at Love Canal in Niagara Falls.
"There is plenty of information already," she said. "You don't have to wait for the state health report. The councilwoman doesn't need to see some tortured numbers."
An overdue state Health Department report on the risk of living in Hickory Woods and recommendations on how to deal with it might be released in several days, Martino said.
Gibbs, however, contended that Buffalo should know better than most cities how government will deal with chemically tainted land -- "test and test and test and test."
Since the early 1990s, about 60 homes have been built on land the city purchased from steelmaker LTV and the Donner Hanna Coke Co., which residents say buried manufacturing waste on the property off South Park Avenue and Abby Street.
Many of the occupants are city employees.
Gibbs urged the more than 150 residents, who began the protest with a rally in front of City Hall, to "be in the faces of elected officials" and to "move into their homes."
Her advice, in part, was taken to heart.
Vincent J. LoVallo, Mayor Anthony M. Masiello's chief of staff, barely could get a word out before several residents demanded to know why Masiello was not at the meeting and why he has not taken a more prominent role in dealing with the situation.
"We're here to fix a problem. We have worked tirelessly. We've been working with (the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development) to identify funds to relocate or remediate, or whatever residents need to do," LoVallo said before he was shouted down.
Accusing one angry resident of "grandstanding" didn't help LoVallo. That resident stormed out, but others continued yelling at LoVallo.
"When the city remediated land at some of the houses, they dug up a pile of contaminated dirt and put it across from my house, and the wind blew it at us constantly," hollered Patrick Blake of Abby Street.
Holding her 4-month-old son, Cameron, Lori Cox of Germania Street expressed her rage by saying the children of elected officials have not been subject to the unexplained illnesses of children in Hickory Woods.
"There's blood in my son's urine," Cox said.
Marion DeJoy, who raised her great-grandson for several years on Germania Street, said the 5-year-old "has blood in his urine and is on a breathing machine and needs to be tested for attention deficit disorder."
She says she thinks exposure to high levels of lead in the soil might have caused his short attention span.
When LoVallo asked the organizers to take charge of the meeting, Judy Robinson of the Citizens' Environmental Coalition declined to rein in emotions.
"These are reasonable people who have been pushed to the brink and are expressing their frustrations in order to get action that is long overdue," she said.
She later added that LoVallo "incited the outbursts by not showing sensitivity for the stresses residents have been under for the past two years."
"Can you make a commitment that the mayor will come and talk to these people in the next two weeks?" Gibbs demanded.
"We'll sit down with the leadership of Hickory Woods once we have a plan," LoVallo said.
"Why not everyone?" someone shouted.
"Large meetings aren't productive," said LoVallo, who expects the mayor's Hickory Woods plan to be ready in two weeks.
About the only public official to survive the meeting unscathed was Common Council President James W. Pitts, who noted that the Council would meet at 2 p.m. Tuesday to authorize establishing a redevelopment agency to resolve the neighborhood crisis.
"It will have three components -- relocation, remediation and redevelopment. It will be community-based," said Pitts, who contends soil tests already have provided reason enough to relocate residents.
"The question is not just contamination. It's about your health. We don't need to wait for the state Health Department to tell us about the rashes and cancer clusters," said Pitts, who urged the residents to attend the Council session in City Hall. "We want this resolution passed unanimously."
Stephen Lester, science director for the Center for Health, Environment and Justice, a national environmental group based in Washington, D.C., presented statistics on contamination in the neighborhood.
Arsenic levels in the surface soil at the Germania ballfield and playground, he said, are 17,000 parts per million, vastly surpassing the 370 parts per million considered safe by the federal Environmental Protection Agency.
"The highest arsenic levels in surface soil exceeded the one-in-a-million cancer risk for arsenic by more than 800 times," he said.
High levels of lead in the soil, Lester added, also could prove disastrous for young children and developing fetuses.
"The exposure can cause neurological damage, and we're finding out that it is taking smaller and smaller levels of lead exposure to cause the damage," Lester said.
After the hourlong meeting, Rick Ammerman, president of the Hickory Woods Concerned Homeowners Association, said his group intends to attend Tuesday's Council meeting.
"People perceive this as a situation where the administration has stood back. Today is the first we've heard of the mayor looking for funding sources," Ammerman said.
His group also plans to start distributing T-shirts with a message:
"Relocate, remediate, remunerate; now, not later."