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State health and environment officials met with about 60 concerned parents and community members in the Waterfront School on Tuesday to share plans and get feedback on a proposal to spend $7.4 million to clean up a hazardous-waste site adjacent to the school.

The site is about an acre in size, just north of the school, and encompasses part of the school parking lot, said Martin Doster, a regional engineer for the Buffalo office of the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

It was originally the site of a manufactured-gas plant that operated from 1870 to the early 1900s, he said. The volatile and semivolatile wastes found on the property were byproducts of the manufacturing process. The site is now owned by the Buffalo Urban Renewal Agency.

Both DEC and Health Deparment representatives said the site poses no immediate health risk because most of the contaminants are either below ground or fenced off. They added that their testing of more than 100 soil and water samples in 1996 show that the contaminants have not migrated beyond the gas plant's original site.

To safeguard the public and the environment, however, Doster said the DEC considered four means, ranging from simply fencing off or capping the property to doing a partial or full-scale excavation.

"There was a lot of discussion, a lot of disagreement about this," Doster said.

Ultimately, the DEC recommended that complete excavation was necessary to protect the public and allow future development of the land.

School employees, parents and residents of the Pine Harbor and Shoreline apartments expressed concerns about the health implications of the site and questioned the safety of a cleanup proposal that would unearth volatile chemicals.

Apartment residents noted that many people living in Pine Harbor and Shoreline suffer from serious health problems and diseases that could easily worsen. They questioned whether they and their children were at risk at home and at school.

Despite assurances given at the meeting that they were not at risk, many residents left feeling skeptical.

"They tell you that, then 20 years later, my granddaughter is born without an arm," said Pine Harbor resident Sayonara Hunter.

School staff members also expressed concern that the excavation would seriously disrupt the school environment. When the site was first discussed during a public meeting in 1996, they said they were told that capping the property would be enough to contain the problem.

"In 1996, we didn't know what we know now," Doster responded.

That knowledge includes how far the contamination extends below ground and its impact on the groundwater, he said.

Even if feedback to the proposal were positive, Doster said, it still would take about two years before the cleanup could begin. In the meantime, he said, another hazardous-waste study is being done on property owned by National Fuel just south of the school.

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