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Answers sought on Kensington Heights; Parents want to know whether 2009 tests show children facing risk from asbestos

On any late summer or fall afternoon, chances are good of finding 200 youngsters playing football on a field next to the Kensington Heights housing project.

No one -- not the parents, not the coaches -- ever suspected the children might be exposed to asbestos contamination from six vacant towers only a stone's throw away.

And now, two weeks after federal prosecutors alleged wrongdoing by two asbestos-removal contractors, people are wondering why no one can tell them:

Were their children ever at risk?

"I can't answer that question," Modesto Candelario, assistant executive director of the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority, told parents earlier this week during a meeting at the football field.

Candelario went out of his way to assure parents and coaches that recent air samples indicate the environment around Kensington Heights is safe. He also emphasized the authority's intention to do more tests once asbestos abatement resumes.

"All of the samples have come in under the acceptable levels," he said of the latest round of air tests.

Less certain, Candelario acknowledged, are the results from air samples taken during that six-month period in late 2009, when the purported asbestos violations occurred.

Candelario said the housing authority never had those results and indicated they most likely remain with the contractors who oversaw the testing or with the federal prosecutors who subpoenaed them.

A spokeswoman for U.S. Attorney William J. Hochul Jr. said Friday she could not comment because of the ongoing investigation.

If Hochul does have the results, parents are eager to see them. They're desperate for any information on whether asbestos reached the football field on which their children still play.

"They're absolutely right," said Joseph Gardella, a University at Buffalo chemistry professor and a longtime adviser to residents involved in environmental issues.

Test results from that six-month period in late 2009 are vital to determining if asbestos ever left the buildings, Gardella said.

He also endorsed the parents' demand for soil testing.

"Absolutely," he said. "In the absence of the old [air sample] data, soil samples should be taken."

During their meeting with Candelario, parents asked whether the authority could take soil samples, a step in determining whether asbestos ever reached the neighborhood complex.

"I keep hearing about air tests," said Leland Coleman, a Buffalo Ravens coach for 10 years. "What about soil testing?"

In response to those requests, the housing authority took soil samples Friday at six locations around the towers.

"The authority is very concerned about public safety and health," said Adam W. Perry, a lawyer for the housing authority.

The samples, analyzed by Stohl Environmental of Blasdell, revealed "no visible suspect asbestos materials."

Despite the authority's attempts to ease health fears, parents said they walked out of last week's meeting with as many questions as answers.

"Where was the [housing authority] when it decided there were problems with the contractor?" asked Glenda Blackman, a parent of one of the Ravens' first-year players. "At that point, something should have been done with the community."

Candelario said no evidence at the time indicated that asbestos had gone beyond the building, but he acknowledged that communication with the neighborhood might have been helpful.

"In hindsight," he said, "maybe that should have been done."