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Long-awaited DEC cleanup poses concerns for Falls neighborhood

Juanita O'Neal moved into a brick house near Beech and Highland avenues decades ago, when Moore Business Forms was still pumping out carbon paper in a factory across the street.

Behind it, another company made batteries for years.

Four decades later, the now-vacant properties across from the O'Neal home are a tangle of weeds and bushes. But what has been left behind in the dirt -- and how it will be cleaned up -- is what concerns residents such as O'Neal and her husband, Joseph.

"We want to make sure that when they're out there digging, that they're not exposing us," said Juanita O'Neal, a retired nurse who raised four children on Beech Avenue.

The state Department of Environmental Conservation is planning for a $12.8 million cleanup of the property at 3001 Highland Ave. -- known as Tract II.

The agency has proposed removing lead and other hazardous waste from the land and has targeted work to begin next year if state funding is available.

Consultants hired to ensure residents are informed and have a voice in the cleanup process say nearby citizens such as the O'Neals want to know that testing will be done to determine whether the contamination has affected other properties in the neighborhood.

"You have a history of inactivity," said James W. Pitts, former Buffalo Common Council president, who is project manager for the team. "There have been promises made on Tract II to clean it up since the '90s."

Residents support the project but want additional testing done, Pitts said. His team was hired through a nonprofit community organization, People and Possibilities, created with the help of the Niagara Falls Housing Authority. The organization received a $50,000 grant from the DEC to provide technical assistance to organize community meetings and explain the project to residents.

As part of its work, the team has submitted a report to the state agency to explain the concerns of residents. The group released its findings to reporters Thursday.

"These are questions that the residents have," Pitts said. "What impact has the contamination had? Nobody knows. This property has been wide-open for so many years. You have kids playing here. You have trucks dumping. You have different things going on."

Portions of the land -- about 20 acres between Highland Avenue and 17th Street -- were previously owned by several companies, including Moore Business and battery manufacturers Auto-Lite and Prestolite.

Gregory Sutton, the DEC's regional hazardous-waste remediation engineer, said the agency believes that most of the lead contamination came from battery production in the area.

The proposed cleanup calls for removing the lead-contaminated soil from the site and replacing it with clean fill. The western end of the property, where Moore Business was located, will require less cleanup, Sutton said. Earlier plans, whose cost was $9 million less, called for removing a top layer of soil and capping the property. Later tests showed that a more extensive cleanup would be required, he said.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency also is working on a cleanup of the adjacent Power City Warehouse site, which also was involved in battery production.

DEC officials believe that the contamination of the site will not affect nearby residents or groundwater as long as the land is not disturbed. "As long as people keep off the property," Sutton said, "there's really no chance of contact and lead being moved around."