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DEC tries to calm fears over industrial site's health effects

Joanna Richards

A toxic waste site in Watertown is drawing renewed attention from residents and city leaders. New York Air Brake's chemical dump on the north side of town was cleaned up in the 1990s. State environmental officials say it's been monitored since then and they're convinced it's safe for neighbors and wildlife. But people who live nearby believe they have health problems traceable to the site. And they fear it still poses a health risk.

Andy Williams grew up on the north side of Watertown. He used to own his own construction business, employing 22 people. He was making great money working on development projects on the city's busy Arsenal Street. That was until one day about five years ago, when a hammer fell out of his hand. He couldn't pick it up. Then he started having mysterious leg cramps.

"I was having 300 to 400 Charley horses a day," he said. "My muscles were just tightening up and I was going to the hospital every day to get shot up with, you know, muscle relaxers and Valium and whatever. And it just got to the point where I wanted to kill myself."

Williams's health problems forced him to shut down his contracting business in 2008. Now, he said he's considered 100 percent disabled. Managing his condition has become his full-time job. Doctors at the Cleveland Clinic suspect a mitochodrial disorder might be responsible for his illness. 

Williams walks out to Oily Creek, behind his old house. It connects to Kelsey Creek, a larger waterway that runs through the neighborhood. Williams looks around at his childhood haunt – the place he suspects is the real cause of his illness.

"You know, when we were kids we had a tree fort right over here in the corner, and we used to hang out in here, and we used to have forts and play war," he said. "The creek runs right down through here, and comes right up – and there's my house, right up in there."

At the time, both creeks contained toxic chemicals. They were dredged by the state Department of Environmental Conservation as part of a larger cleanup of the New York Air Brake industrial site in the late 1990s. Polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, were found there, as was the industrial solvent trichloroethelyne, or TCE, which is known to cause neurological problems.

But Williams fears the effects of the chemicals might not be all in the past. Last month, he and other north side residents organized a neighborhood meeting to address their concerns about the pollution. A representative of famous environmental activist Erin Brockovich came to speak. More than 200 people showed up. A former worker at the plant recalled dumping chemicals nearby. Residents said they were worried about elevated rates of cancer and other illnesses on the north side. Mayor Jeff Graham called for the DEC to hold a public information session about the site. 

DEC's Region 6 Director Judy Drabicki invited Williams and others to a recent closed-door meeting, also attended by elected officials.

"We want to hear what their concerns are, so that we can in turn explain to them what was done here historically, and listen to them about what concerns they have," she said.

But Drabicki said the department probably won't be doing more testing around the New York Air Brake site, despite requests from the activists.

"We have to be convinced that there's a reason to do it, so that the company will pay for it. Because otherwise the taxpayers of the state pay for it, and it really should be the responsible party," she said. "You can't just keep going back and doing more and more sampling and study unless you've got a reason to."

Drabicki said the case was reopened five years ago. New science was showing that contaminated soil vapors from near the plant could get into nearby homes. Homeowners around the plant were invited to have their air and ground tested, but only a handful opted into the program. And one house was given a radon system, after elevated levels of chemicals were found underneath it.

The DEC said the Department of Health signed off on all of its cleanup plans, and that no continuing threats exist – even though many homes never got tested for indoor air quality. Monitoring at the industrial site continues every year.

Peter Ouderkirk is an environmental engineer and the current project manager for the Air Brake site for the DEC.

"From the department's standpoint, from an environmental safety, environmental protection [standpoint], we are fully confident that the remedies that were chosen and implemented have been successful and control, contain and manage all the waste that's on site," he said.

As for Andy Williams's illness, Ouderkirk says the DEC can't speak to the problem of contamination before the cleanup. Before 1980, it was legal for companies to dump chemicals into the surrounding environment.

"I mean obviously, from probably their inception in the 1900s to whenever they stopped (they were dumping chemicals), but to what degree, I don't know. I have no idea whether they were large discharges, small discharges," Ouderkirk said. "I mean obviously there was discharges, because we found contamination which we subsequently cleaned up."

One resident said he wants the state Department of Health to talk with neighbors about the issue. William Wise lives in the one house in the neighborhood that has a radon system to pull contamination out of the ground.

"DEC did everything they can. DOH are the ones that are going to have the answers if it can go farther, I guess, or if more testing and stuff is going to be done," he said.

The Department of Health didn't return calls for this story, but officials from the agency are expected to participate in a public information session a few weeks from now, along with the DEC. The date hasn't yet been set.