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Lead tainting Geneva's soil kept hidden for 30 years


GENEVA - Thirty years ago, New York state officials first uncovered evidence that toxic metals from an old foundry in this historic Finger Lakes city had contaminated an adjoining neighborhood.

A state environmental health expert concluded then that people were at risk of lead poisoning and neighbors should be warned. "Young children (those prone to placing fingers, other objects or dirt in their mouths) are of particular concern," the expert, Dr. John Hawley, wrote in an internal memorandum in June 1987.

A decade later, consultants presented additional evidence to state and city of Geneva officials that the toxic contamination was widespread in that same near-north side neighborhood.

The consultants recommended that the lead-laden soil in yards be removed.

After 30 years, residents in Geneva are learning the soil in part of the city contains unsafe levels of lead and arsenic. (Nov. 10, 2016) Video by Olivia Lopez, Steve Orr, Shawn Dowd

But state and city officials never warned residents and the decision to clean it up was deferred 16 more years, a Democrat and Chronicle investigation has found. Children dug for worms and played in the dirt, and adults planted gardens for more than a generation; oblivious to the small but real risk posed by that tainted soil.

The silence ended only in early October, when state environmental officials mailed letters to nearly 100 properties near the former Geneva Foundry site, informing the owners their soil contained lead or arsenic in concentrations that are considered unsafe.

Smaller area is the old foundry site. Larger area is impacted by lead and arsenic emissions. (Photo: State Department of Environmental Conservation)

The threat is significant enough, officials told startled neighborhood residents, that the state will spend $17 million to dig up the bad soil and cart it away.

They did not, however, tell residents that they’d known about the contamination for 30 years.

"The data on the toxicity of lead and arsenic are irrefutable. It's really shocking that these people were not informed," said Walter Hang, who operates an environmental data firm in Ithaca and who was deeply involved in a highly publicized lead-contamination site in that city.

The key findings of the Democrat and Chronicle investigation include:

  • The presence of lead and arsenic in Geneva first came to the attention of regulators in the spring of 1986.

  • The state and city’s own internal studies concluded the lead and arsenic posed a threat to health that merited government action.

  • Soil lead contamination was emerging as high risk for children, alongside water supplies and paint.

  • Independent experts concluded that soil lead levels at the levels detected on Geneva site constituted a health risk for children.

  • Soil test result showing unsafe conditions withheld from property owners for years.

Geneva city officials gagged by hired attorney

Fueled by rumors and vague memories of soil sampling whose results were never shared, some residents are seething over officials' failure to warn them.

Maira Aguilera picks up one of her4-month-old twins, Lionel, after his nap inside the bedroom at their home on Jackson Street in Geneva Friday, Oct. 21, 2016. (Photo: SHAWN DOWD/@sdowdphoto/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER)

“At first I wasn’t sure about it, but now that I’ve heard other people talk, I’m like ‘Yeah, they’re right. We should be mad. Why did it take so long?’” asked Maira Aguilera, who lives across the street from the former foundry site. Elevated levels of lead and arsenic were found in the soil at her home in 1998 but results were not reported publicly until now.

Even after they went public about the neighborhood's contamination, state officials told residents very little about what went on there in past decades. City officials have gone them one better, refusing to say anything at all.

The mayor, the city manager and the city attorney for Geneva, which sponsored much of the residential soil sampling that was not publicly disclosed, did not respond to calls and emails seeking comment for this story. Two elected City Council members said they had been ordered not to speak about their city's role in the site.

Hang and other outside experts said silence on the part of the city and state officials was out of bounds.

"That’s unconscionable. The city is responsible to the taxpayers," he said. "You have to be able to face the music. It’s very, very hard, but everyone has a common purpose in getting these sites investigated and remediated."

Joseph Gardella, a SUNY distinguished professor of chemistry at the University at Buffalo who has advised government officials and community groups on many hazardous waste sites, said he was particularly struck by the failure of state and city officials to share earlier soil-test results with residents.

"That’s pretty outrageous. I’ve worked with EPA a lot, and the standard is, the first people who get the report are the people who own the property," he said, noting that owners have a legal obligation to disclose contamination when they sell their property. "If that's consistently what happened, that's a violation of every practice I've seen."

The Geneva Foundry site fits a disquieting pattern.

While most of the thousands of old hazardous waste sites in New York were cleaned up relatively quickly, others languished with pollutants in place, caught up in a lack of funding or bureaucratic molasses; little-known or forgotten until events bring them to light in a burst of jarring publicity.

In Geneva, that notoriety came Oct. 12, when the DEC released a fact sheet informing residents and businesses in a 55-acre section just north of the city's highly touted downtown that their soil contained excess lead and arsenic.

Of 107 properties tested, the soil at 98 of them contained one or both metals in concentrations that are considered unacceptably high.

Citizens were told that extensive testing done in late 2015 had found arsenic in the soil averaged 25 parts per million, with a maximum of 228 ppm. The cleanup objective — the concentration that DEC has deemed acceptable — is 16 ppm.

Undated photograph of the Geneva Foundry (Photo: State Department of Environmental Conservation)\

Arsenic, which comes from natural and industrial sources, can cause skin problems and even cancer if ingested in large enough quantities. Drinking-water contamination is the more common source of excess arsenic consumption. The drinking water in Geneva, which comes from Seneca Lake, is not affected by this contamination.

Lead may be more problematic. The average lead level found by DEC in soil at the site was 506 ppm, with a relatively small number of locations over 1000 ppm. DEC testing found "normal" levels in soil elsewhere in Geneva to be in the 100-200 ppm range. The state clean-up goal is a more tolerant 400 ppm.

One DEC official described the lead levels as "middle of the road" compared to other contaminated sites in New York state. But experts say that the amount of lead in the Geneva neighborhood's soil presents a clear hazard.

Elevated blood-lead levels detected in resident's child

“Based upon the literature … I would conclude that soil lead levels at that level constitute a health risk for children,” said Mark A.S. Laidlaw, an Australian researcher who has co-authored numerous scientific papers about the health impact of lead in soil in this country and elsewhere. Laidlaw was lead author of a study published earlier this year that demonstrated an annual doubling of children's blood-lead level in summer and early fall was due to kids swallowing dirt and inhaling dust as they played outside.

Laidlaw noted a child can be exposed to lead from numerous sources — paint chips and dust inside a home, or lead that leaches from water pipes. But if those routes of exposure are closed off, he said, "that child can potentially be poisoned from the soil alone."

At least one Geneva parent, Kara Helstrom, is certain that her 3-year-old son’s elevated blood-lead level is due to the soil in their yard. The Jackson Street home where Helstrom and her family live was first found to have elevated metals in the soil in 2005, though the family was never informed.

Kara Helstrom looks out at the rain from her back porch at her home on Jackson Street in Geneva Friday, Oct. 21, 2016.

Helstrom said her first two children had normal blood-lead readings when they underwent routine testing at ages 1 and 2, as required by state law.

But her youngest child, Jonah, was found with elevated blood lead when first tested at age 1. By his second birthday, his reading was above the classic lead poisoning level. She said he suffered developmental difficulties of the sort that lead poisoning can cause.

After finding no other explanation for Jonah’s lead poisoning, Helstrom said she had come to suspect soil might be the source of the metal. She had even wondered whether the old foundry might be responsible for her son’s problem.

But that was all supposition until last month when the DEC mailed notices of the contamination problem. Said Helstrom: “When I got that letter, I was ‘Oh. It was from the foundry. It was the soil.”

Antoinette and Dominic Coluzzi, who lived 32 years on Center Street, say they recall their soil being sampled but they heard nothing about it.

“We were worried about it. But we didn’t know what was going on with the soil,” Dominic Coluzzi said. “We never got any notification of that at all.”

Mark Gramling, who bought that same Center Street home two years ago, now says he regrets it. His worry, shared by many in the neighborhood, is that the stigma of contamination will affect property values.

Gramling is an elected Geneva councilman, but said he had been told by city officials he can't discuss Geneva's role in the contamination issue.

Speaking as a homeowner, Gramling said his initial jitters have subsided and he believes the cleanup will be handled safely. But he wasn't happy to learn that toxic metals had been found in his home's soil years ago.

“It definitely bothers me … that they knew about it,” he said. “I wouldn’t have bought the house. I wouldn’t have put my family in that situation.”

Access to state funds a factor in delayed response

Revelation of the toxic-metal contamination struck a jarring note in a 210-year-old Finger Lakes city that is enjoying a heavily publicized rebirth, highlighted in July when Gov. Andrew Cuomo visited, bearing a $10 million check to further downtown revitalization.

The Democrat and Chronicle has been reporting on the city's emergence as an upcoming food and drink destination in the region.

Eight months earlier, the Cuomo administration had agreed to provide funding to help revitalize a large section of north Geneva, including the area around the foundry. Just days after his July visit to the city, the council voted to ask for more help — placing the Geneva foundry site in the state Brownfield Cleanup Program, which provides remediation assistance and tax credits for redevelopment.

The City Council resolution discreetly stated that the foundry's "environmental effects" had impacted "the former site of the plant and neighboring areas."

Some Geneva residents were notified by the DEC that New York state will pay to remove lead and arsenic contaminated soil from their yards. Virginia Butler and Matthew Leonard

The Geneva Foundry back-story, never made public until now, began in 1986 when a neighbor complained about foundry waste oozing into her backyard. Events that unfolded from that point forward suggest that public health concerns and environmental protection were purposefully deferred, at least in part because of difficulty accessing state cleanup funds.

In written statements and background discussions, officials from the state Department of Environmental Conservation now say there was no immediate push for remediation in years past because cleanup standards were more lax. When study of the site did begin, they had to prove the excess lead and arsenic in the soil came from an industrial source such as the foundry in order to qualify for state cleanup funding.

But it took until 2015 to generate that proof, the DEC officials said.

Gardella observed that delays in DEC remedial activity aren't rare. "To defend them a little bit, they have a (limited) budget for these things. A big factor in my experience is whether the elected leadership at every level is pushing for a cleanup," he said.

But Gardella, who formally critiqued DEC's soil cleanup objectives a decade ago. said the agency claim that lead standards were more relaxed in past years is "just not true."

"The standards that set decision-making for cleanup of lead and arsenic haven’t changed much for 30 years," he said.

The crumbling ruins of the foundation of the former Geneva Foundry on Jackson Street in Geneva Friday, Oct. 21, 2016.

In similar background interviews and written statements, the state Department of Health could have informed residents whether or not remediation funding was in place. But officials there told the Democrat and Chronicle that no alert was issued because it was believed that lead and arsenic levels simply weren’t high enough to warrant one.

Those explanations, however, are contradicted by the state and city’s own internal studies and analyses from years ago. Those studies concluded the lead and arsenic did come from the foundry, and did pose a threat to health that merited government action.

Kathleen Burns, a former government toxicologist who now oversees a network of environmental and occupational health experts and who has worked on lead issues for many years, concurred that New York state officials should have known full well the risks of the soil contamination.

"You can go back 40 years and there is no question we knew that lead was extraordinarily dangerous," she said. "We knew soil was an issue. If anybody says, 'Oh, we didn’t know it was that much of a problem,' that’s just not true."

Burns also observed that the primary goal of public health agencies is to minimize health hazards and improve public well-being. That requires they disclose threats when they are discovered.

"Health agencies have to be transparent and share any important information they receive,” she said.

A century of foundry fallout left unchecked

The Geneva Foundry, which made cast iron components, opened in 1868 and remained in business 120 years.

It had no pollution control on its smokestack until 1970, and imperfect controls after that. Some of the feedstock was recycled iron that often contained lead and other metals, state officials said. The furnaces burned coal, which contained arsenic and mercury.

Geneva Foundry in 1971, just before the first pollution control device was installed.
(Photo: Democrat and Chronicle file photo)

The small factory complex, which employed more than 100 people at its peak, was surrounded on three sides by tree-lined streets of middle-class homes and other businesses. When tiny particles of the toxic metals were carried up the plant's stack amid smoke and steam, they settled back to Earth nearby. The metals, which persist in the environment indefinitely, inevitably built up in the upper layer of soil.

The presence of the lead and arsenic first came to the attention of regulators in the spring of 1986, when a family that lived immediately east of the foundry complained to the DEC about leaking chemical drums near their property line. At the time, the foundry was losing money and its owner was just months away from filing bankruptcy.

The material was cleaned up. But because it had been so close to the neighbor’s property, samples were collected from the backyard and garden.

The results showed higher-than-expected levels of lead, zinc and cadmium, among other metals. Vegetables from the garden, especially green beans, contained lead.

In June 1987 Hawley, the state environmental health expert, wrote a memo to colleagues, including top health officials in Albany, in which he described the lead concentration in the Geneva soil as “highly elevated.”

He called for a study of airborne releases from the foundry and mapping of the entire neighborhood.

This soil findings raised concerns about ingestion of lead, particularly by small children, Hawley wrote in the memo, a copy of which is included in a cache of documents at the Geneva Public Library. He said studies had shown that children routinely swallow and inhale lead while playing in contaminated soil and eating food grown there.

“Young children with daily access to non-vegetated areas of the (neighbor’s) yard may be subject to increased blood levels,” he wrote.

Maira Aguilera has a large garden of peppers and tomatoes behind her home on Jackson Street in Geneva Friday, Oct. 21, 2016.

The property owner eventually was told her green beans were safe to eat, but Hawley stressed that uptake of toxic metals by garden vegetables was an ongoing concern.

Hawley recommended that other people living near the foundry who had children or who grew vegetables be alerted to the metals' presence in the soil. State health officials told the Democrat and Chronicle they believe these neighbors were warned, though they acknowledged they have no proof that that happened. Three people who lived near the foundry at the time told a reporter they remember no such warning in 1987.

Hawley has retired from the state Health Department and could not be located.

In a recent written statement, state health officials said the amount of lead in the Geneva soil lead "could result in an increased possibility for lead exposure, but any such exposure is likely to be small."

Contaminated soil poses risk along with water and paint

Most experts, however, believe that any lead is too much. Even in very small doses, lead can cause a dizzying array of problems in children — slowed development and physical growth; learning disabilities; problems with speech, memory and behavior; and more. Despite years of effort to reduce exposure, federal authorities say a half-million American children have blood-lead levels above the current action point.

Lead paint, banned in 1978, is considered the most common source of childhood lead. But Laidlaw and other researchers have found that soil, which can contain lead from gasoline-engine emissions, paint chips or industrial sources like foundries, is a significant contributor.

To date, state health officials say they have found “no unusual patterns” in the blood-lead levels of children who live in the Geneva neighborhood. Health officials say they reviewed blood-lead data in 2008 and again in recent weeks.

There is no easy way to tell whether any particular child in the Geneva neighborhood might have ingested enough to suffer ill effects, said Katrina Korfmacher, a founding board member of Rochester’s Coalition to Prevent Lead Poisoning.

Maira Aguilera holds one of her 4-month-old twins, Lionel, in the living room at their home on Jackson Street in Geneva Friday, Oct. 21, 2016.

“Of course it’s possible," said Korfmacher, who also is director of community outreach and engagement in the University of Rochester Medical Center’s environmental medicine department. "It depends on how much lead is in that yard, and how much they’re getting into their mouths."

In 1998, a decade after the foundry had shut down and 11 years after Hawley issued his warning about childhood lead poisoning, the city of Geneva began steps to acquire the derelict property. Using a state grant, the city hired consultants to conduct an environmental assessment of the 2.5-acre foundry site.

The DEC issued a fact sheet in October 1998 informing people of the work that was beginning. It made no mention of any plans to assess contamination on residential property in the neighborhood — yet within days, technicians were gathering soil from residential yards near the foundry.

Four off-site properties were sampled that fall. In 1999, sampling was done in 13 off-site properties.

Residents never informed of results despite years of sampling

Nearly all the dozens of homes sampled in both rounds of testing contained elevated lead or arsenic, according to data included in a report that can be found in the Geneva library. The report, presented to the DEC and the city in 2000, concluded that the contamination likely was due to airborne deposition of metals from the foundry, and said a cleanup plan would be prepared that included replacing tainted neighborhood soil.

But the DEC agreed to place only the city-owned foundry property into a state remediation program, which provided funds to demolish the foundry buildings in 2005. Nothing was done in the off-site neighborhood, and residents weren't informed of the testing results.

"No remedial action could have or would have been taken based on those results and it was determined further investigation was needed," the agency said in its written statement.

Another decade would pass until the DEC finally finished that further investigation. In 2015, using a hand-held device that can produce reliable, near-instantaneous lead measurements in soil, technicians tested nearly 700 samples in the near-north neighborhood. The dispersal pattern they found, plus laboratory analysis of samples, finally satisfied officials that the foundry was indeed the source of much of the lead and arsenic.

That’s small solace to residents, who now face years of remedial work in their neighborhood and who complain they were left in the dark far too long.

Suzanne Rago, for instance, has lived across the street from the foundry site for nearly all of her 73 years. When the factory was open, Rago said neighbors complained frequently about the noxious odors, smoke and soot released from the plant. But she, like others, said she was never told that metals were building up in her soil.

That soil was sampled in 2005 and 2006, with elevated lead levels found both times. Rago said she vaguely recalls giving permission for technicians to collect the samples.

“I figured if it was something I should be concerned about, they would tell me. I never heard anything back,” Rago said. “I’ve always been a little too trusting. Maybe I should have followed it up … but I never did.”

Lead contamination of soil a growing issue

  • Elevated levels of lead in soil have triggered studies and cleanup actions around the country. In most cases, the contamination is linked to lead smelters, foundries or other industrial activity. Examples can be found in Buffalo; Depew, Erie County; East Chicago, Indiana; and Indianapolis.

  • A site in the city of Corning contaminated with lead is under active remediation. The contamination was discovered in 2012, leading to immediate intervention by the state Department of Environmental Conservation. The lead came from waste disposal by nearby Corning Inc., which is paying for the work.

  • About 75 waste sites containing lead await final remediation in New York state, according to DEC data. Lead appears to be a primary concern in a third of those sites.

  • Some of the increased attention on lead-soil contamination can be attributed to Ghost Factories, a widely praised 2012 investigation by USA Today that found environmental agencies had overlooked lead hazards from old smelters and foundries in countless American neighborhoods.