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Hickory Woods, the city's shining example of how to turn old industrial land into a vibrant neighborhood, was built on contaminated land.

And City Hall knew it early on.

When Buffalo prepared an environmental review of Hickory Woods in 1992, city officials claimed there were no industrial waste sites in the South Buffalo neighborhood.

That was untrue.

A year later, state health officials warned the city about coke waste buried at the site and the lack of "sufficient information" on potential health risks to residents.

Those warnings fell on deaf ears.

Two years after that, in 1995, City Hall's handpicked developer asked repeatedly for an environmental review.

The city ignored his requests, he says.

Red flags and early warning signs at Hickory Woods popped up often, but city officials never took them seriously -- until recently.

The story of Hickory Woods is a tale of what City Hall knew or should have known about environmental problems at one of its biggest subdivisions.

Today, more than a decade after the first of 60 houses were built there, the city faces allegations of carelessness and incompetence, deception and wrongdoing.

"Ignorance is bliss," said Joseph A. Gardella Jr., a chemistry professor and associate dean at the University at Buffalo. "They got a warning letter from the Department of Health (in 1993), and if you read that, you come away knowing the city should have known better."

City Hall went ahead anyway, building the homes and using cash incentives to attract families to a neighborhood contaminated with waste from coke, a coal-based industrial fuel.

Federal environmental officials took more than 600 soil and water samples last year and found high levels of lead and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, a byproduct often associated with the steel and coke industries.

State health officials claim the risks associated with the developed areas of the neighborhood are small, but say that several vacant lots continue to pose potential health risks. They also advised residents to take simple precautions to reduce their contact with contaminated soil.

Homeowners don't buy it.

About 30 families have sued the city and two former landowners -- LTV Steel Corp. and Donner Hanna Coke Co. -- claiming damage to their health and property. Some of the families are demanding as much as $10 million each.

"Every doctor I ever had and my son ever had said the same thing -- you should move out of there," said Diane Radder, who with her husband, Russell, bought one of the first homes at Hickory Woods.

Radder has breast cancer, and her youngest son suffered from hand rashes and an asthma-like condition that forced him to miss months of school. When he finally moved out in his late teens, his health improved.

Experts disagree about the seriousness of the contamination at Hickory Woods, but two things are certain: Families have been left with homes they can't sell, and even the city admits it's partly to blame.

"This crisis has seriously damaged the credibility of the city's community development efforts," Bruce Coleman, chairman of the city's Environmental Management Commission, said in a 1999 letter to Mayor Anthony M. Masiello.

"But perhaps worst of all, the whole sorry affair shows . . . that a culture of indifference to environmental concerns pervades city departments and agencies engaged in economic and community development activities. The residents of . . . Hickory Woods, and the city ourselves, are paying the price."

The early warnings

One of the first red flags came from LTV, which operated a steel plant next door and owned the land where new housing was built.

In 1991, the city sent LTV a letter, expressing interest in buying some of its land and asking if there was any history of landfilling or environmental problems at the site.

The company wrote back that there were no known environmental problems. But it also noted that no soil or groundwater tests had been done at the site.

More than a decade earlier, the state had designated a nearby landfill as a hazardous-waste site. The landfill, located on LTV land, is just a few hundred yards from the Hickory Woods neighborhood.

Environmentalists say the LTV letter and the site's proximity to a state Superfund site should have been enough to convince the city to test the site for contamination.

"This was a lesson learned 20 years ago at Love Canal," said Judy Robinson of Citizens Environmental Coalition, a statewide advocacy group. "The city ignored the red flags because the city wanted to build."

A year later, in 1992, City Hall conducted an environmental review of Hickory Woods and, despite its proximity to a Superfund site, declared the site free of environmental problems.

"The site is not located near any known industrial waste-disposal sites," the report said. The report was signed by the city's assistant environmental assessment coordinator.

City officials now admit the document was incorrect.

"That was a mistake," said Richard Stanton, the city's lead attorney on the Hickory Woods case. "That was wrong."

Two more warnings popped up in 1993, when state health officials and state environmental officials, in two separate letters, advised the city to conduct more soil tests.

More red flags

The letters, one sent directly to the city, the other copied to the city, were in response to a soil test in early 1993 by a City Hall consultant, Empire Soils Investigation.

"The report does not have sufficient information to comment on the potential health concerns associated with the development of this parcel into residential property," state health officials told the city.

Cameron O'Connor, the state's regional toxics coordinator and the man who wrote that letter, said the city never responded to his warning.

O'Connor's letter criticized the city's decision to take soil samples from 16 separate test pits and combine them into one composite sample. In addition, the sample was analyzed for only one group of contaminants.

"It was a completely inappropriate analysis," says UB's Gardella. "Given the warnings that were given, the city should have done a more comprehensive analysis."

By this time, the city was well on its way to developing Hickory Woods as a major subdivision. Dozens of homes had been sold and built, and families already were taking root in what then-Mayor James D. Griffin billed as a boon to the area.

City officials say the push to develop Hickory Woods was due, in large part, to Griffin's desire for a major project in his native South Buffalo. Griffin could not be reached to comment.

Evidence of coke wastes

When Griffin retired, the development of Hickory Woods continued with the full support of Masiello. Shortly after Masiello took office, another red flag emerged.

The Radders, who were dealing with a sick son, discovered pieces of brick and slag in their back yard.

"I thought it was a piece of sidewalk," said Russell Radder. "I was skeptical until the letter came back."

A 1994 letter from O'Connor to the Radders confirmed whatO'Connor had found during a previous inspection of their home -- evidence of coke waste. A follow-up test by the state came back positive.

A year later, the Masiello administration announced plans to move ahead with the last phase of Hickory Woods and chose an Albany-based developer, Omega Homes.

The company was asked to build 11 homes along Abby Street, the road closest to the former LTV Steel and Donner Hanna plants.

Like Griffin, Masiello said the project would help rebuild the neighborhood.

As part of the deal, the city asked Omega to sign a contract that included a waiver of liability for the city. The waiver, the only part of the contract in bold letters, asked Omega to accept the property "as is."

Omega objected and, in June and again in July 1995, asked City Hall to provide proof that the site was environmentally clean.

"Although your staff has indicated there are no longer any environmental concerns affecting the Hickory Woods Project area, I have yet to see any documentation, reports or studies whatsoever concerning this matter," Omega's lawyer said in a letter to the city.

The lawyer, Steven H. Polowitz of Buffalo, said city housing officials never responded to his requests for an environmental review.

"You didn't have to be an environmental expert to know that serious questions existed," Polowitz said. "The mere fact that it was located so close to the LTV site, that was enough to raise all sorts of red flags."

Polowitz said a top City Hall official pulled him aside one day and, noting the site's proximity to the LTV site, advised him against building on the property.

Omega finally walked away from the project, but Polowitz is still angry with the city's decision to proceed.

"LTV may have contaminated the site," he said, "but it was City Hall that promoted a housing project there and encouraged buyers with subsidies."

Masiello said Omega's concern about the environmental condition of Hickory Woods was never relayed to him.

"This is the first I've heard about this," Masiello said last week. "No one brought that information to my attention."

City Hall testing

In 1995, a year after the Radders' discovery and two years after the state's initial warnings, City Hall conducted another round of soil tests at Hickory Woods.

The sampling, done by Enasco of Buffalo, concluded that no further investigation was needed for the property along Abby Street.

Gardella, the UB chemistry professor, said Enasco's testing was limited and inadequate, no better than the testing done two years earlier by Empire Soils. He claims the company took surface soil samples and never dug deep into the ground.

Even now, city officials are reluctant to comment on the quality of the testing done by Enasco and Empire.

"I can't answer that," Stanton said when asked if the tests were sufficient.

A year after the Enasco tests, City Hall asked the state for environmental information on Abby Street.

State environmental officials, in a 1996 letter to City Hall, said there was no evidence of hazardous waste in the area but did caution the city about the makeup of the land.

The state said the South Buffalo neighborhood, originally a wetland, had been filled with construction and demolition debris and sediment from a wastewater treatment plant that Donner Hanna operated.

The city, eager to continue the Hickory Woods development, hired a new contractor, Burke Brothers Construction of Hamburg.

"There was a big push for brownfield development, and that blinded them," said Rick Ammerman, president of the Hickory Woods Homeowners Association. "They ignored and looked past those problems."

A halt to the building

The rush to construction came to a grinding halt in 1998, when a city inspector noticed some dry, black, gravelly material in the soil of a lot on Abby Street and ordered the project shut down.

City Hall asked for a new round of tests. For the first time, the results showed elevated levels of contamination at four occupied homes along Abby Street.

The sampling, done by Acres International of Amherst, revealed moderate to high levels of cancer-causing compounds. Acres recommended removing the contaminated soil.

The city relocated the families and did what Acres advised -- excavating the four lots and adding four to five feet of new soil. The families are now back in their homes.

Later in 1999, the city hired a second consultant, URS Greiner, to do a broader sampling of the neighborhood. Again, the results showed high levels of contamination.

By this time, the city knew it needed help. It asked the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to intervene.

Stanton, the city's attorney, said the Masiello administration has done an "exemplary job" of identifying and responding to the contamination at Hickory Woods.

"We're identifying problems, and we're continuing to address them," he said. "There are some very real problems out there, and some still exist."

Masiello said his first knowledge of the Hickory Woods problem was in 1998 when a city inspector shut down work on the project.

"When Tony Masiello first knew there was a problem, the city reacted expeditiously," the mayor said.

EPA finds contamination

The EPA responded to the city's request by taking more than 600 soil and water samples at 80 homes. The agency also agreed to supervise a cleanup of several vacant lots with high levels of contamination.

In December, the EPA released its results. The soil samples contained elevated levels of lead and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.

State health officials analyzed the test results and, though advising residents to take precautions, said the risk of exposure was small. A more detailed report on the health risks is expected this spring.

"There's no immediate health risk, and that's the bottom line," said EPA spokesman Michael Basile.

Gardella thinks the EPA study was comprehensive, but says Basile's interpretation is "meaningless."

"His statement doesn't get to the long-term effects," Gardella said. "There is an immediate health problem. That's why there are fences on the vacant lots."

State health officials acknowledged that the vacant lots still pose a potential health risk to families in the area.

Homeowners, many of whom blame the city for encouraging them to buy in the neighborhood, are asking for a permanent relocation. The city has balked at what would surely be a multimillion-dollar prospect.

More and more, the question being asked is, what did city officials know about the problems at Hickory Woods, and when did they know it?

Even some elected officials are now acknowledging that, in the early stages of the project, City Hall knew more than it ever let on.

"There were efforts to keep the controversy down, to give a false impression," said Common Council President James W. Pitts. "In retrospect, I think it was a mistake to mislead people, and that makes Hickory Woods a travesty. You have to tell people the truth."

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