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Residents reject plans for soil clean up

MIDDLEPORT – Speakers at a public meeting Wednesday night unanimously condemned a state and federal plan to excavate soil from 181 properties to remove arsenic.

Officials of the state departments of health and environmental conservation and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency insisted that arsenic can cause cancer, but it appeared that residents, tired of an investigation and cleanup now in its fourth decade, have tuned them out.

"If there was danger here, we'd be up in arms to get it cleared away. You people have run amok," resident Dick Owen said to heavy applause from the crowd of about 50 in the Middleport Fire Company hall.

"Frustration isn't the word for it," said resident Christa Lutz. "The Department of Health and all these agencies have gone way overboard."

The source of the arsenic was the production of agricultural chemicals at the FMC Corp. plant in Middleport, which stopped using arsenic in its products in 1974. Its plant was declared a Superfund hazardous waste site in 1986, six years after FMC admitted it was managing hazardous waste.

FMC signed a consent order in 1990 committing it to paying the full cost of all cleanups – more than $200 million so far – and it proposed a plan last year to dig up 152 properties, cleaning them to an average level of 20 parts per million of arsenic.

The state estimated its plan would cost $70 million. FMC's counterproposal would cost $23.6 million.

Robert Schick, acting director of the DEC's Division of Environmental Remediation, promised "flexibility" on cleanup decisions, especially where elevated arsenic levels are found in inaccessible areas of a property. Examples he cited were among thick tree roots or near a building foundation.

"The agencies are recommending what we call a point-by-point clean up, with flexibility," said Sally Dewes, the DEC's Middleport project manager. That means less than 20 parts per million of arsenic everywhere, but she said residents may opt out.

"We have to exercise our right to refuse to refuse remediation, because if they remediate, it's going to be hell," said William Arnold, chairman of the Middleport Community Input Group.

"Some people have expressed that they don't want their property cleaned up, and that's OK," Dewes said. "Before anybody decides whether they want their property cleaned, everybody should look at the data very carefully."

"I'm perplexed that the agencies can't see what the local people see, that [the agency plan] is way, way, way over the top for the people of this village," said State Sen. George D. Maziarz, R-Newfane. "I would strongly urge you to reconsider your decision-making process."

Thomas Johnson of the Health Department said the previous studies that showed no health impact from the arsenic were not valid because of small sample sizes or untimely testing. Several speakers ridiculed that position.

"I'm in perfect health. I have no medications," said Fred Fierch, a retired FMC worker who actually packed materials containing arsenic.

Many speakers decried the prospect of heavy truck traffic for years as dirt was being hauled in and out.

Town of Royalton Supervisor Jennifer Bieber denounced the state's plan to store the allegedly dangerous dirt in a 28-foot-high pile on FMC's property.

Bieber also blasted the state's claim that the clean up would take no more than five years. She said, based on the pace of earlier cleanups, it would take 13 years.

email: tprohaska@buffnews.com