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Tony Masiello said Thursday he'll make it better. He promised to save the people stuck in the Hickory Woods toxic nightmare.

It's a promise he needed to make. He's the reason some of them are there.

Long after this neighborhood is cleaned up and the people moved out, Hickory Woods will stand as a monument to City Hall's ignorance and arrogance.

It is symbolic of the failure of two mayors -- first and foremost Jimmy Griffin, and later Masiello -- to protect the people they are supposed to serve.

A long-abandoned steel mill left the poison in the ground. But it was the city -- on Griffin's heavy-fisted, light-brained watch -- that built homes there without making sure it was safe. It was Masiello who kept building.

It's no less than a disgrace, particularly when the lesson of Love Canal was taught 20 miles up the road.

The city didn't just build the homes. It lured people in with $20,000 handouts. Many who came were city workers. By law, they had to live in Buffalo.

They're still paying the price.

More than 60 families suffered for the flubs and follies of two mayors. They planted their hopes and their health -- and the health of their children -- in toxic ground. There have been children born blind there and people who grew tumors after moving in. With every illness came the fear of not knowing whether the post holes they sank and vegetables they ate from backyard gardens put poison in their bodies. Or, worse, into their children's bodies.

There's one blessing. The EPA found hot spots, but no blanket contamination. We don't know for sure, but maybe only a few people were harmed.

Even so, a cloud covers the land. Houses bought for $75,000 might as well be sitting atop a volcano for all they're worth now. Life savings have disappeared.

The rest of us will also pay a price. Tens of millions of tax dollars will be spent digging up lawns and yards, moving people to safe places.

Masiello will try to get the money from Washington and Albany. It won't be easy. Because not enough poison has been found, the EPA cavalry isn't riding in, as it did 10 years ago at Forest Glen. There's a good chance city tax dollars, or block grant money that's supposed to rebuild neighborhoods, will be spent to clean up this mess.

It was Griffin, not Masiello, who started it and later ignored health department warnings. But Masiello takes a hit as well. Had he known of a developer's fears six years ago, as he should have, more houses wouldn't have been built. More people wouldn't have moved in. Families living there could have left sooner.

A company called Omega said six years ago it wouldn't build at Hickory Woods until it was sure the land was clean. Omega's lawyer, Steve Polowitz, sent two letters to City Hall. They went to Anthony Marconi, a boyhood pal of Masiello's who was commissioner of inspections and community revitalization -- and one of a number of Masiello's bad hires.

Instead of looking into the problem, Marconi found another developer. The city built or finished about a dozen houses in Masiello's first three years, before an inspector spotted black sludge and stopped the bulldozers.

"It's typical of the way projects are done (in the city)," said Polowitz. "Some bureaucrat decides it's going to happen, and nothing will get in the way."

Masiello says he was never told of the letters. He's truly shaken by this. Marconi, later fired by Masiello (for reasons other than Hickory Woods) and now working for the county, did not return a phone call.

"It's very disturbing," said Masiello. "Our course would have been different if I had known (about the letters)."

It's not the first time the mayor wasn't in the loop. Three years ago, a high-ranking city official -- behind the mayor's back -- nearly got the historic Vernor Building demolished. Two years ago, the city bought land for a police precinct without knowing leaking fuel tanks were buried there -- though they were listed on property records.

Despite the screw-ups, no heads rolled. That's one of the knocks on Masiello -- he's not a tough enough boss.

He says he'll heal the wounds at Hickory Woods. If only he had been there years ago.

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