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Love Canal area families file lawsuit against city over release of chemicals

Three families who live near Love Canal sued the city this week for $113.6 million, claiming health problems, including a baby born with severe birth defects, were caused by a sewer main break last year.

The sewer line on Colvin Boulevard allegedly was packed with the same type of chemicals buried in the nearby 70-acre Love Canal containment area.

One of the families abandoned its home on 92nd Street and moved to Pennsylvania, according to the lawsuit filed in State Supreme Court in Niagara County.

The others stayed put, although some family members moved away temporarily, according to a notice of claim filed last year with the city and the Niagara Falls Water Board.

The plaintiffs include Joann Abbo-Bradley of 90th Street and her three children; Zachary and Melanie Herr of 93rd Street and their two children; and Nathan and Elena Korson and their son Logan, who has clubbed feet and heart defects.

The Korsons formerly lived on 92nd Street but now live in New Cumberland, Pa.

"Some of the chemicals that were found in our clients' homes were the same as those in Love Canal," said Richard J. Lippes, the veteran Buffalo environmental attorney who fought the original Love Canal litigation in the 1980s.

Lippes' co-counsel, Christin Morris, said Elena Korson was pregnant with Logan on Jan. 11, 2011, when a Niagara Falls Water Board crew attempted to excavate a defective sewer line on Colvin Boulevard just east of 96th Street, right in front of the Love Canal containment area.

The effort exposed and discharged contaminated sediment including non-acqueous phase liquids or NAPL, "a toxic chemical 'stew' historically associated with Love Canal," the lawsuit said.

The complaint charges that someone used a high-powered water jet to try to wash the chemicals off the street, but the high-pressure hoses only spread the chemicals.

No phone listing could be found for the Korsons' Pennsylvania home, and Melanie Herr declined to be interviewed. Gary Bradley, Joann Abbo-Bradley's husband, is not a party to the case and wouldn't talk about it.

Morris charged that the Love Canal containment system is failing.

"We're dealing with a clay containment structure. It's not a question of if they fail but when they fail, especially when you're dealing with stuff like NAPL that can eat through clay. Add into that a high water table and a high precipitation level and we're dealing with some interesting things," Morris said.

The nearest home to the scene, the Herr house on 93rd Street, is several hundred feet away from the broken sewer. The other plaintiffs lived farther away.

Their homes are located amid a densely packed neighborhood of small homes.

On a visit to the abandoned Korson home Thursday, a reporter encountered a 92nd Street resident who seemed more concerned about who would mow the grass at the house than any health issues.

The resident, who asked not to be identified, said his pregnant daughter was living on 92nd Street at the same time as the Korsons and gave birth to a healthy child.

"You're talking to a neighbor with no scientific background," Lippes said. "Lawyers take these cases on a contingent fee basis. We don't get paid unless we win. We screen our cases pretty carefully. Otherwise, we'd go bankrupt."

"Obviously, there will be extensive discovery to determine the causality of that birth defect," said John J. Ottaviano, attorney for the Water Board.

He said that when the chemicals were discovered, the Water Board crew called Occidental Chemical Corp., the company responsible for Love Canal.

Ottaviano said Occidental called Conestoga-Rovers and Associates, an engineering firm it had under contract, and Conestoga-Rovers called Scott Lawn Yard, a Sanborn company that used the water jet.

However, an employee of Scott Lawn Yard denied that. The employee, who asked not to be identified, said Scott stopped work at the site, and the Water Board then called Occidental.

Neither Occidental nor Scott Lawn Yard are named in the lawsuit. Conestoga-Rovers is a defendant -- its president, Bryan Smith, did not return a call from The Buffalo News -- and so is Glenn Springs Holdings, a company that allegedly assists Conestoga-Rovers in monitoring Love Canal.

Niagara County is named as a defendant because Lippes said it might own some sewers in the Love Canal area.

Anthony Hahn, director of the county Sewer District, said the district has no pipes inside city limits. Lippes said if that's true, the county will be dropped from the lawsuit.

email: tprohaska@buffnews.com