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Barrels of spoiled road-striping paint reportedly buried behind the Amherst Highway Department in the mid-1980s could be in any one of 20 spots, the Amherst Town Board learned Monday.

Crews and a backhoe, capable of digging to a depth of 20 feet, will spend about two weeks next month excavating each location in an attempt to solve the town's 2-year-old "where's the paint" mystery, Assistant Town Engineer James I. Johnson told the board at an afternoon work session.

Johnson showed high-tech color contour maps of the area at the rear of the Highway Department complex on North Forest Road, pinpointing 20 spots where metal is buried.

The problem is, the specialized equipment that did the pinpointing doesn't differentiate between types of metal. "There's no way to know if it's a (paint) drum, (steel) reinforced concrete, or a car axle," Johnson remarked.

About $11,000 has been spent so far trying to find the buried paint, with a final price tag of $19,000 the latest estimate, he said. The $19,000 doesn't include the cost of any environmental cleanup that may be required, only what it will probably cost "to get through the investigation," Johnson reported.

The mystery of the buried paint grew out of the particularly nasty political race for town highway superintendent two years ago.

The Republican challenger and subsequent winner, Thomas A. Wik, charged during the campaign that veteran Highway Department workers had revealed that 10 to 13 55-gallon drums of spoiled paint were poured into a pit, with the drums then crushed and thrown into the same hole.

Wik claimed that unknown quantities of a toxic paint thinner as well as pesticides may have been disposed of in the same way.

The charge led to an investigation by the state Department of Environmental Conservation, which ordered the town to find the buried paint, remove it and clean up any soil contamination.

Based on interviews with longtime workers at the Highway Department, the town went looking for buried 55-gallon drums, excavating a 3,000-square-foot area to a depth of about 16 feet last November.

The digging turned up nothing. When new and follow-up interviews with more than 15 workers were inconclusive, town officials decided to bring in sophisticated metal-detection equipment, rather than continuing to dig in the hope of getting lucky.

But officials said the interviews, coupled with ground and creek water tests, lent no credence to charges that the area behind the Highway Department was a graveyard for paint thinners and pesticides.

Johnson said Monday that based on interviews, excavation crews could be looking for as few as three or four 55-gallon drums, or as many as 15.

If drums of paint were dumped in holes and didn't rupture, they will be loaded and trucked away to a legal disposal site. But the discovery of ruptured or crushed drums will trigger tests for soil contamination and cleanup work, he said.

According to town officials, the probe last year indicated that two supervisors at the Highway Department were involved in the illegal dumping. One is dead, and the other retired long ago, they said.

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