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DEC will review Air Brake cleanup of Kelsey Creek

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For months, residents on the city’s north side have called for additional testing and cleanup of Kelsey Creek, voicing concerns about toxic chemicals dumped at the former New York Air Brake site years ago.

Now, state Department of Environmental Conservation officials have announced plans to conduct a 10-year review of the cleanup of the creek and nearby tributaries that is expected to be completed this spring.

Peter S. Ouderkirk, DEC project manager for the Air Brake project, said Thursday that the review, through the Fish and Wildlife Division, will determine whether “the health of the stream has improved” over the past decade.

In 1995, DEC dredged Kelsey Creek and removed contaminants and soil. But residents believe pollutants got into the ground and spread off site and back into Kelsey Creek, causing subsequent health problems for them and their families.

Mr. Ouderkirk insisted the 10-year review already was being planned, saying “it just coincides with” the public’s recent outcry for more testing. Similar reviews on the creeks were conducted in 2001 and 2006, he said.

“It’s a big thing,” he said, “because it’s a complicated program.”

According to the two previous reports, various metals were found in the creeks, but levels generally had decreased from previous years. The 2001 survey also recommended that the source of polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, “should be explored” upstream of Bradley Street and in Oily Creek.

But James P. Barker, an East Division Street resident who is among those who voiced the most recent environmental and health concerns, said Friday that he is unaware of whether that expanded monitoring was ever done. He also questioned how much will come from the 10-year review because DEC has not completed any additional remediation of the tributaries.

“It still needs an action because in the past, there hasn’t been any,” he said.

Mr. Barker also questioned the timing of the study, wondering whether it was prompted by the public’s recent concerns.

The stream quality report will involve taking samples of soil, sediment, fish tissue and crayfish tissue and surface and subsurface water specimens in five to 10 locations along Kelsey and Oily creeks, Mr. Ouderkirk said, to determine whether contaminants remain in the tributaries. A consultant will be hired to complete the sampling and subsequent report.

DEC will wait until spring to conduct the survey because water levels in the creeks would be better suited then, he said, adding parts of Oily Creek are dry during the fall.

Not only will surface samples be taken, but “Pisces” stations will be used to collect samples from creek water flowing into the equipment over a period of time, rather than collecting water and getting “a snapshot” of the stream, he said. Once all the sampling is complete, it will take a few months before the report is complete and submitted to the DEC.

In recent months, residents and former neighbors have told stories about family members suffering nerve disorders, cancer and birth defects. About three dozen people have come forward with health problems they claim are associated with the Air Brake site, said Mr. Barker, who believes there are many others who have been affected.

Residents have expressed concerns about levels of trichloroethylene, or TCE, and polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, found in the neighborhood over the years. TCE and PCBs are carcinogens, while TCE can also cause nerve disorders.

In a related matter, Carol J. Molinari, an Ogdensburg mother whose 17- and 13-year-old sons — Vincent J. and Dominic J. — suffered from a rare skull deformity at birth, has requested the Department of Health to conduct a study on birth defects and cancer rates possibly associated with pollutants dumped at the site. On Friday, Mrs. Molinari, who grew up in Watertown and lived here for 35 years, sent her request asking the study to determine whether a pattern has existed for children with birth defects in the neighborhood.

The Health Department told her a committee will determine whether the study is warranted, she said Saturday. In its response, the department did not give a time frame when that decision would be made.

In addition to Mrs. Molinari’s two sons, neighborhood residents have said at least four other children in the neighborhood also suffered from problems with their skull bones that would not allow normal growth of their brains. It was caused by “soft spots” that closed too fast after they were born, Mrs. Molinari explained.

In 2008, the DEC conducted “vapor intrusion” tests and found unacceptable levels of TCE, an industrial solvent used at the Air Brake plant decades ago, in four on-site buildings and a house at 431 E. Hoard St., which subsequently was equipped with an air-mitigation system. In all, 43 homes, two schools and a church were tested off-site.

But many residents attending a public informational meeting Wednesday contended that they were never contacted about becoming involved in the testing. DEC officials, however, insisted that they did whatever they could to inform residents about the testing and that 1,200 letters were sent to property owners.

During the meeting, Health Department and DEC officials repeated several times that they found the chemicals only on site and possibly underneath that East Hoard Street house when the most recent environmental investigation was completed in 2008.

Since then, they have been monitoring the Air Brake site.

They said several times Wednesday that they found no exposure that would be harmful to residents. But DEC officials also admitted they do not know whether the soil around the site contains contaminants.

During the meeting, residents also gave several accounts about incidents that raised their suspicions about the Air Brake site. They included:

n Two residents told officials a community garden was stopped about 20 years ago because of black sludge coming up from the ground.

n Residents also recalled seeing black sludge in the Oily Creek tributary, near Morrison Avenue, that lasted about two weeks just a few years ago.

n A woman recalled a neighbor who worked for Air Brake and once brought home two drums full of TCE.

DEC officials said Wednesday that they will check into those stories.

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