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Next to Waterfront Elementary School and Pine Harbor Apartments near Niagara Square sits a small piece of property surrounded by a broken wood-and-wire fence.

Local residents have watched as children ran in and out of the fence's gaping holes during the summertime and pulled out the wooden stakes for make-believe sword battles. Any child can easily get onto the site, and there are no signs marking the property.

Yet contained within its boundaries are volatile and toxic compounds left over from a turn-of-the-century manufactured gas plant that will cost millions to clean up.

Almost every day, students walk by the unassuming patch of grass never knowing that the space is a hazardous-waste site with surface-level poisons that could cause health problems with direct, long-term exposure.

Only recently did some nearby residents find out why the fence was there, alerted by a public meeting notice to discuss cleanup efforts for the Fourth Street property.

"I've seen kids playing in here and everything all summer long," said Jayme Harper, who lives in Pine Harbor and has two children attending Waterfront School. "There's nothing here that says, 'Don't enter.' "

The state Department of Environmental Conservation and the Department of Health say the site does not pose an immediate health threat. But they're worried enough to recommend a $7.5 million cleanup operation to completely excavate the site.

"As you move away from the problem area, you really didn't see any migration of the contaminants," said Martin Doster, regional engineer for the DEC in Buffalo. "But the reason we want to spend $7.5 million on this right now is we're not sure what the future holds."

The DEC has set up a public meeting at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday in Waterfront School to share its proposed plan for cleaning up the toxic material.

Residents say they're extremely worried that the contaminants may already have spread beyond the boundaries of the flimsy wooden fence and onto adjoining school and residential property where children play.

Some also have begun wondering whether their respiratory problems and diseases could possibly stem from the site. They note that Pine Harbor
Apartments is filled with children and disabled and elderly adults whose illnesses could worsen with chemical exposure.

Doster said the greatest concentration of poisonous chemicals is actually two to six feet below ground, and because the area is grassy, immediate health risks are unlikely. Numerous samples taken outside the fenced area showed no cause for concern, he said.

In addition, the Health Department reported that tests of the air and drinking water at Waterfront School in 1997 showed no evidence of health risks, though measurable levels of contaminants could be found in the basement sump holes.

But residents aren't convinced they're out of danger. They point to other highly publicized incidents where residents were initially told they were not at risk.

"How do you explain Love Canal?" said Pine Harbor resident Tanya Calcorzi, who has two children and was recently diagnosed with lupus. "How do you explain Hickory Woods?"

She said her health has deteriorated since moving to Pine Harbor about four years ago.

"I am trying not to link it, but I am wondering why I'm getting so sick and why I'm getting kidney disease," she said. "I know there are a lot of other people here who are sick."

Jayme Harper is one of those people. She concedes she had lupus and renal failure before she moved to Pine Harbor last year, but she and her husband, Bernard, don't want to see these conditions aggravated.

"My wife has lupus, and we have two kids. I'm concerned," Bernard Harper said. "I don't want this to get any worse."

Some say they find it hard to trust government officials when it seems little effort was made to protect the low-income families living near the contaminated property for years.

"If it was in Amherst, I bet there would be a better fence there," said Calcorzi's husband, Jose.

They also questioned why the management at the Pine Harbor apartment complex didn't take a more active role in warning new residents about the toxic site. The manager for the complex could not be reached to comment Wednesday.

Some of the hazardous-waste concerns were addressed at meetings three years ago when the Buffalo Urban Renewal Agency, which owns the property, began a $135,000 investigation of the site under the DEC's direction.

Darlene Fitzgerald, who has a child attending Waterfront School, said residents were assured the agency would aggressively address the problem. She wants to know why she's still waiting for action.

"With all the mud melting and shifting," she said, "there's no telling where this (contamination) has gone in the last couple of years."

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