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HICKORY WOODS AWAITS ITS FATE

Residents of Hickory Woods have a lot of stories to tell -- stories of dogs losing their teeth and dying of brain cancer. Stories of children with unusual medical problems and birth defects.

Stories of people who move into the South Buffalo neighborhood and develop ailments that clear up when they leave.

Many believe all those stories are rooted in the same cause -- chemical contamination in their neighborhood. Now they are waiting for validation, which for some means the city should buy their homes.

They might not get what they are asking, but the waiting is about to end. Within the next few weeks, the state Department of Health is expected to release a report based on exhaustive soil tests by the Environmental Protection Agency.

The report will analyze the possible exposure and health risks Hickory Woods residents might have faced, and project what future risks may be.

All along, the city has insisted it has done right by the residents of Hickory Woods, fixing problems when they arose and spending close to $1 million.

But some residents say the city failed them by builting homes on top of coke waste without conducting adequate environmental tests and did not tell them about the Superfund site across the street.

Now they have been waiting for two years, since coke waste believed to cause cancer and to have come from the former Donner-Hanna coke plant across the street was found in the neighborhood.

"There are people who are legitimately afraid of what they're living on. We have to find out what's legitimate and what's not," said Vincent LoVallo, a spokesman for Mayor Anthony M. Masiello. "There is no doubt we'll take care of these people."

Some residents, however, remain and contend they already have been deceived by city and state officials about health risks in their neighborhood.

"Are they going to give us the truth, or are they going to whitewash it again?" asked Sam Lockwood, who has lived in the neighborhood for 43 years. "Just give us the truth."

The black box

The Health Department is analyzing and preparing the report at its Albany headquarters. But it hasn't told residents how it will determine whether they should be moved out, said Rick Ammerman and Chuck Antolina, the top officials of the Hickory Woods Concerned Homeowners Association.

Residents are frustrated because the EPA's tests are going into a "black box," where decisions are made, unseen, and come out the other side, said Joseph Gardella, a University at Buffalo chemistry professor who, with his students, has conducted environmental tests in the neighborhood.

"I'm afraid there may be concerns other than health -- political, economic concerns," Ammerman said.

The state Health Department's No. 1 priority is public health, said Robert Kenny, a spokesman.

"Any level of exposure there, that's a problem," he said.

Residents, in particular, fear for their children, who are more affected by contamination than adults, and while Kenny said the Health Department realizes that, he could not say how the report will take that into account.

Why haven't the residents been relocated?

Because, on most lots, the city's tests haven't found evidence of toxics that would require an immediate response, said Richard Stanton, assistant corporation counsel.

The history

Hickory Woods, a neighborhood of about 200 homes, is located off South Park Avenue. Some of the people living there worked for Donner-Hanna, which produced coke for making steel.

But after steel abandoned Buffalo, the neighborhood sagged. Twelve years ago, the city decided to turn the neighboring brownfield -- an old industrial site -- on Abby Street from dead space into tax-base-enriching homes.

That brownfield was across the street from a state Superfund site -- the old Donner-Hanna and later LTV Steel site.

In 1992, the city planned to build homes on the what had been Donner-Hanna's parking lot. People living in the neighborhood said the lot had been paved with coke waste -- which was cheaper than asphalt, Ammerman said.

Stanton said homes now occupy the parking lot, but he didn't know if it had been paved with coke waste.

Such wastes contain compounds believed to cause cancer and toxic metals such as mercury, lead and arsenic.

For its part, the city might not have known the area marked for new houses was contaminated; when the city was negotiating the purchase of the former LTV property, LTV sent the city a letter saying no dumping had been done on the site.

But the letter, dated April 1, 1991, also said no soil or groundwater tests had been conducted, which some residents said should have raised a red flag.

A local Health Department official agreed, recommending in a June 1993 letter that the city conduct further tests before building homes on the Abby Street site.

But the city held off on extensive testing of the site until last year and sold 19 homes with subsidies of $5,000 to $20,000.

Many residents said they never would have bought a home in Hickory Woods if the city had told them about the Superfund site across the street.

One resident said he knew of LTV and Donner-Hanna's operations but, when he went to City Hall to ask if the area was safe, had received assurances it was.

"I trusted the city, and I got it stuck in my ear," he said.

The city continued to build homes in Hickory Woods until 1998, when a developer discovered cindery black coke wastes and an oozing black substance in the soil, residents say. Stanton said builders found only a "dry, black, gravelly" material.

The next summer, the Health Department warned residents not to dig below 6 inches in their yards, plant gardens or let their dogs outside.

But the warnings came too late for many residents who had dug holes to put in decks and fences, planted trees and gardens -- at times with their children helping -- and now fear they unwittingly exposed themselves and their families to toxins.

Stanton said the recommendations were made simply to be cautious.

The homeowners association isn't without detractors.

Some residents detest how the group has presented its neighborhood to the media, blaming it for the precipitous drop in home prices. Some said they have lost $30,000 since problems came to light and claim the area has been "redlined," preventing mortgage refinancing.

"I don't think what they're doing is justified," said Carol Parot of Abby Street. "Nothing's factual until (the report comes out). The homeowners association gave negative press on the area. That's not fair to the rest of the residents. I can't sell my house."

The contamination

So far, Hickory Woods hasn't been shown to be toxic. Most parts of it have relatively low levels of polyaromatic hydrocarbons -- PAHs -- that are believed to cause cancer. PAHs are associated with coal tar but can be produced by the burning of other materials, such as wood or gasoline.

But tests by the city within the past year show wide variations in the PAHs -- from virtually unmeasurable to levels that would cause alarm in a factory.

Stanton noted that PAHs are found throughout the city and in most urban areas. Levels at most of the Hickory Woods sites are within the average found in other areas of the city, he said.

But residents say more than their neighborhood worries them; equally disturbing to many is the 219-acre Superfund site across the street. According to state Department of Environmental Conservation documents, the site's soil and groundwater are contaminated with benzene, cyanide and chromium. Residents are scared that contaminants are being blown into their neighborhood and that toxic groundwater from the Superfund site will make its way across the street.

Stanton said groundwater in the area flows toward the Buffalo River and plants are growing on top of the Superfund site, preventing toxins from being blown around.

For years, residents have reported orange and black goopy materials clogging their sump pumps.

"There's no magic fences that stop contaminants at property lines," Antolina said.

The cleanups

The city hand-delivered 19 letters to residents in August informing them of toxins on their property.

But residents are afraid of having the toxins removed. Some say that if the work is done a few lots at a time, as has been the case so far, they will be trapped in the neighborhood for decades, breathing in the dust.

Both the homeowners group and Stanton said they would like to see one cleanup, encompassing all the affected lots at once.

The cleanups done so far have enraged some residents.

In May 1993, 3 feet of soil was scraped off four Hickory Woods lots. The dump trucks carried the soil across Abby Street and dumped it on the Superfund site. The trucks worked late into the night, as shown by a videotape shot by a resident.

Stanton said he didn't know why the soil was taken across the street, and LoVallo said he couldn't answer for the previous administration.

LoVallo noted that the Masiello administration inherited the Hickory Woods situation and has tried hard to remedy it.

After finding the coke waste in 1998, the city tested three adjacent properties on Abby Street and found very high levels of contaminants. The city promptly removed soil from the lots -- but without advice from residents or approval of environmental agencies, residents said.

Stanton said the DEC, EPA and Health Department were all notified.

Mike Basile, a spokesman for the local EPA office, said the agency was notified during the cleanup.

LoVallo said the city spent $800,000 cleaning up those lots and acted quickly because the residents' health was at risk. Ammerman said the cleanups put the neighborhood in danger, because of the lack of safety precautions to prevent contaminants from becoming airborne.

The city tried to clean up four more lots last summer -- a sign of its diligence, city officials said -- but the residents stopped it because they were concerned that neighborhood children were being exposed.

The future

While residents have begun multimillion-dollar lawsuits, city officials said the city has told the truth throughout and that state law prevents them from buying residents out before establishing that the situation calls for such measures.

"We're very concerned about this," LoVallo said. "We're going to do what's best for their health, safety and welfare."

The city has sued LTV to recover the $800,000 spent on Hickory Woods so far and future expenses of cleaning up the neighborhood.

The Common Council has passed a resolution calling for "justice for Hickory Woods" -- including relocating those who want to leave, cleaning up contamination and making up the residents' financial losses with money from LTV and local, state and federal government.

Justice, as the homeowners group sees it, is slow in coming, and recovering the money -- whether from a lawsuit or voluntarily -- won't erase the legacy of Hickory Woods for some.

Said Antolina: "You can't put a price on my daughter."

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