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CITY PURCHASE OF POLLUTED SITE STIRS A PILE OF QUESTIONS

In July, workers unearthed an environmental mess while digging at the site for Buffalo's new Central Police District station at Main and Tupper streets.

A leaking 6,400-gallon fuel oil tank, hundreds of tons of gasoline-soaked soil and more than 500 cubic yards of "unsuitable material" from a basement that was left behind by demolition contractors were among the problems found buried at the site.

The cleanup bill for the mess tacked nearly $109,000 onto an already controversial $4.2 million city project, which was then more than two years behind schedule.

How did it happen? The abandoned tank and other pollution came as a surprise to officials, said Public Works Commissioner Joseph N. Giambra.

"Nobody knew it was there," Giambra told Common Council members at a Monday meeting.

But if officials were surprised, it may have been because nobody checked the city's own records.

It took only five minutes of routine checking at a city permit office to turn up records for not only the fuel tank, but a second underground gasoline tank that was installed at the site in 1931.

In another city office, officials also had a file containing a 40-year-old drawing showing where the fuel tank was buried.

When asked about the records, officials vowed to find out what went wrong with the sale, which was tied up in negotiations for two years.

"I'm certainly glad that you brought this to our attention. . . . The question is whether the process is faulty, and it certainly seems like it is," Council Majority Leader Rosemarie LoTempio said Wednesday.

In response to a reporter's questions, Mayor Masiello ordered the city's top environmental lawyer, Assistant Corporation Counsel Richard Stanton, to look into the case.

According to Giambra, sales negotiations with the prior owners, 703 Main Corp., were handled by the city's Real Estate Department and corporation counsel's office.

City records listed the corporation's principals as Ronald S. Cohen, an attorney; Joseph Deck and Louis Fumerelle. Fumerelle was the owner of a building on the site that was destroyed in 1991 in a $3.8 million, four-alarm arson blaze.

Buffalo officials ordered an emergency demolition of the fire-gutted building in early 1992.

According to Giambra, during the sale negotiations, the sellers furnished the city with a "phase one" environmental study report showing there were no indications of pollution or other problems on the property. No information could be immediately located regarding the report or who issued it.

Before construction, the city also ordered eight test borings at the site to determine underground soil conditions. These also failed to detect underground problems, Giambra said.

LoTempio said she intends to call for a Council meeting to look into the purchase of the site. "This Council will certainly investigate and try to find out where the mistake was made," she said.

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