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Brockovich's efforts in Le Roy halted; Deputies block collection of soil, water by the environmentalist's investigators

Off-duty Genesee County sheriff's deputies worked until early Monday guarding the Le Roy Junior-Senior High School grounds after representatives of famed environmentalist Erin Brockovich tried to collect soil and water samples.

Brockovich, commenting on the issue Monday evening on CNN's Anderson Cooper 360, said that despite indications of toxic contamination in the area, "there had been no soil testing and no soil vapor testing." She added that there were reports of "an orange-yellow substance oozing up from the ground" in a school field.

School Superintendent Kim M. Cox blasted the unauthorized effort, saying the district is already working with environmental, health and safety officials to determine what has caused 15 students to suffer Tourette's-like symptoms of involuntary twitching and gestures.

"It is appalling that whatever group or entity employing [Brockovich's workers], as well as the media outlets participating in this effort, chose to conduct themselves in this way -- which can only be characterized as grandstanding," Cox said.

"Not only was this criminal activity, which forced the district to call in local law enforcement to maintain the security of its property, it disrupted the district's preparations for a weekend music event. No legitimate organization would function in this manner."

Bob Bowcock and other environmental investigators said they were in Le Roy on Saturday morning on behalf of Brockovich to collect soil and water samples at the school on South Street Road and a few miles away at the site of a 1970 train derailment in which toxic substances leaked.

Sheriff's deputies were summoned to prevent samples from being taken on school grounds, and off-duty deputies were later hired to keep out Brockovich's surrogates throughout the remainder of the weekend.

"We don't want any panic," Brockovich said Monday evening on CNN. "I think the panic has already started. Some sort of disorder without any evidence was diagnosed on these girls."

She contended that a plume from the 1970 toxic railway spill had spread to within "close proximity" of the school. She noted that the school had been built on a swamp and that there were gas-extraction installations under the school's ball field.

At 7 a.m. Monday when district officials returned to work, the deputies' services were no longer required, according to Sheriff's Chief Patrol Deputy Gordon L. Dibble.

No arrests were made.

"The district called our office to make sure there was no problem. They weren't welcome until they went through proper channels," Sheriff Gary T. Maha said of Brockovich's representatives.

Repeated attempts to speak with Brockovich were unsuccessful last week and Monday.

As for the illness that since last fall has affected 14 female students and one male student, its symptoms, depending on which expert is speaking, are variously attributed to mass hysteria, strep infections or, as Brockovich and others contend, possible exposure to contaminants from the train derailment or other sources, including district gas wells.

The derailment involved a spill of cyanide crystals and carbon tetrachloride.

In a statement to the media Saturday, Bowcock said: "The people of Le Roy need to know they have the largest TCE plume in the eastern United States under their community, and the government has given them lip service for 40 years, telling them, 'We've cleaned it up. We've cleaned it up. We've looked at this. We've done that,' and, frankly, I'm here to tell you they haven't done a darn thing," Bowcock said, referring to the chemical spill.

Cox fired back late Monday.

"There are also some who are attempting to marry the 1970 derailment to the school, when in fact the plume has been shown as moving in the opposite direction some three miles away," she said.

As for Saturday's incident, school district officials said camera crews from a number of national and local media outlets, along with Brockovich's team, illegally entered district property. Such activity, the superintendent said, serves no useful purpose.

"Testing conducted with rogue samples is of no scientific value, as it is not conducted in accordance with scientific methodologies and safety protocols utilized by reputable environmental experts in all testing situations," she said.

"In fact, such actions could hamper the coordinated effort already under way by the district in conjunction with environmental, health and safety experts to address this matter," the superintendent stated, adding the district will continue to provide information on those efforts as it becomes available.

She also noted that previous testing showed environmental causes did not appear to be a factor in the students' illness.

"Based upon the results from testing already conducted at the district as well as [a] review of other information from multiple sources, environmental factors have not been identified as a cause of the symptoms that have manifested in some students," Cox said.

But some say those tests were not conclusive because the Genesee Valley Educational Partnership relied on some "visual inspections" and did not use "destructive methods" to collect samples.

In what appears to be an acknowledgment of the intense media interest this case has generated, Bill Albert of Harris Beach law firm has been hired by the district to handle media inquiries.

The district also said questions should be referred to state and federal health and environmental officials.

All of the attention, Cox said, has made it difficult for students to focus on learning, and it has hurt the recovery of some of the students directly affected.

email: lmichel@buffnews.com