WHEATFIELD - Current and former neighbors of landfill owned by the Town of Wheatfield are threatening to sue the town for a total of almost $1 billion, accusing the town of failing to clean up a toxic landfill.
Sixteen notices of claim have been filed, according to Town Clerk Kathleen M. Harrington-McDonell.
More are likely to come, said Christen E. Civiletto, one of the attorneys for the past and present residents the North Tonawanda neighborhood.
Another attorney for the residents, Paul J. Napoli of New York City, said one of his clients has liver cancer.
"There's a whole host of symptoms and less severe injuries, similar to what we've seen in other toxic cases," said Napoli. Those symptoms, he said, include respiratory complaints, headaches and nervous system disorders.
Each of the notices demands $60 million in damages, for a total, so far, of $960 million. The filing of the notices gives the plaintiffs 15 months to follow up with lawsuits.
The notices of claim say that on Nov. 29, residents received results of soil testing they had privately paid for, and those tests confirmed the presence of chemicals on their properties, including "Love Canal waste constituents that had migrated onto their properties."
"I have nothing but compassion for anyone who is sick," Town Supervisor Robert B. Cliffe said.
But he said the state Department of Environmental Conservation doesn't agree with the claim that waste has migrated off the site of the old Niagara Sanitation landfill into residential properties on and near Forbes Street in North Tonawanda.
"Surface water is confined to the landfill in ponded areas and does not run off the site. No significant off-site contamination is anticipated due to a naturally existing clay layer beneath and around the landfill which limits the migration of contaminants from the landfill," the DEC's March 2016 site update stated.
DEC spokesman Sean C. Mahar said, "While preliminary information and data indicates that contaminated sediment and groundwater appears to be confined to the landfill property and is not impacting surrounding homes, DEC is moving quickly to fully investigate the nature and extent of the contamination and develop a cleanup plan for the former landfill."
Once a decision is made on what to do with the site, the DEC's plans call for the work to be completed in 2019.
Forbes Street, located just south of the Wheatfield-North Tonawanda border, is near the landfill, which is close to the city line. Other plaintiffs live nearby, on streets such as Forbes Terrace and Nash Road.
Cliffe said the town has owned the 20.8-acre site since the mid-1950s. The town apparently allowed the long-defunct Niagara Sanitation to use it as a dump, although Cliffe said so far he hasn't been able to find any documents pertaining to that arrangement.
In 1968, the state Department of Transportation moved some toxic waste to the Wheatfield site from the Love Canal landfill, which the DOT had disturbed while constructing the LaSalle Expressway in Niagara Falls.
The DEC ordered Glenn Springs Holdings, a subsidiary of Occidental Chemical Co., to remove the Love Canal waste from the site. About 60 truckloads were hauled away in 2014 and 2015.
After that work was done, the DEC, which had listed Niagara Sanitation as an inactive hazardous waste site of no danger to the general public, changed the classification in December 2015, rating it a significant threat to public health. The reclassification was explained at the time as a legal necessity to allow the state to invoke the Superfund law to clean up the site and send the bill to the companies that dumped waste there before 1968.
"All these chemicals that the DEC knows are present at the site are chemicals that government agencies universally agree cause cancer," Napoli said. He charged that Wheatfield "is doing absolutely nothing about it."
There has never been any security fence around the landfill, Cliffe said, except for the temporary one Glenn Springs put up around the excavation area for the Love Canal waste. Cliffe said the site has a clay cap of varying thickness.
Residents have told the Town Board at numerous meetings that the landfill is frequently disturbed by all-terrain vehicles whose drivers use the site for off-road riding, and often track the mud onto adjoining roads.
"When Glenn Springs left, we put 12 no-trespassing signs up. They were gone within a week," Cliffe said.
He said 12 more were posted, and most were removed. Another 12 signs were put up Monday.
Last February, State Sen. Robert G. Ortt, R-North Tonawanda, announced he had lined up $75,000 in state money toward the cost of a fence around the site. The town applied to the state Dormitory Authority to get the money, but it hasn't come yet, Cliffe said.
The town has a preliminary plan for a 4,200-foot chain-link fence, six feet high, with the total project cost estimated at $152,000. Cliffe said it's no easy job.
"Every single fence post that's going to be dug is going to be dug into an area that potentially has hazardous chemicals," the town supervisor said.
"There's a lot of headaches, and all of them add costs," Cliffe said.