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Prognosis negative: Dr. Ward Stone announces the results of his five-month study of heavy-metal pollution surrounding the LaFarge Cement plant in Ravena.

Photo: Chet Hardin

The Toxic Truth

Data now confirm that mercury and other heavy metals pollute the area surrounding the LaFarge Cement plant

By this point, I can say that much of this area is polluted with mercury,” declared state wildlife pathologist Dr. Ward Stone, “and that the mercury is primarily coming from the cement plant.” As ducks floated lazily down the Hudson River behind him, Stone announced to a small gathering of media in a riverfront park in Ravena the results of his five-month study of the environment surrounding the Lafarge Cement plant in Ravena.

Stone’s findings confirmed what Elyse Kunz and Elyse Griffin, the founders of Community Advocates for Safe Emissions, had feared: that 47 years of cement manufacturing, a vital industry in their small town, has left the land surrounding them polluted with a long list of heavy metals including lead, arsenic, aluminum, boron, barium, beryllium, calcium, cadmium, cobalt, chromium, copper, selenium, silver, phosphorus, tin, vanadium, zinc, and, of course, mercury.

Stone reached his conclusion after undertaking an investigation of the environment surrounding Lafarge on behalf of CASE. His study included 80 samples of soil and animal flesh, as well as samples of vegetation, collected from throughout the Ravena and the Coeymans area.

In all of these samples, he said, elevated levels of mercury, a dangerous neurotoxin, were detected. In some areas, the level of mercury reached as high as 400 parts per billion, or eight times the normal level.

The majority of the mercury likely comes from the limestone that is blasted out of the local quarry and used as the key component in cement manufacture, he said.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, mercury can cause gastrointestinal and autoimmune complications in adults and children, and can pose a serious threat to developing fetuses, leading to learning and physical disabilities. Prolonged exposure to mercury can lead to permanent kidney and brain damage.

“If you go up here and you look at Main Street in Ravena,” Stone said, “in that area there are high levels of mercury, of lead.” He pointed to the soccer field in the riverfront park where he was standing and to the residential neighborhood beyond it. “These are areas where I definitely found fallout.”

Stone found elevated levels of mercury and heavy-metal poisoning in each of the animal samples that he tested. A shrew tested positive for mercury, lead and cadmium. A frog tested positive for mercury, lead and silver. The most alarming, however, “with a lot of implications for people caring for unborn children,” Stone said, were the test results of a pregnant mouse. Not only did the female test positive for heavy-metal poisoning, with elevated levels of mercury found in her liver, but each of her five fetuses also had elevated levels of mercury, as well as cadmium, lead, copper, chromium and cobalt in their developing livers.

Even the grasshopper he tested had an elevated level of mercury, which is of concern, he said, “because these are at the base of our food chain.” Wild turkeys, for one, will eat a substantial amount of grasshoppers throughout their lives, poisoning the bird and, in turn, posing a risk to the hunters and others who eat the wild game.

Truly unsettling, Kunz said, were the findings indicating that mercury had settled onto the leaves of vegetation growing in the schoolyard directly across Route 9W from the LaFarge plant, where hundreds of children play every day.

“It is hard to retrieve mercury from many square miles of contamination,” said Stone. “It’s not going to be done. So shutting it off is an economic advantage in the long run.” When you cannot eat the fish, and you have warnings about eating the waterfowl, and the crops are contaminated, that is economically negative. We need to shut off the output of mercury. We cannot wait three to six years. We need to shut it off immediately. The more cement they make without controls at that plant, the more mercury will be coming out.”

This past spring, the EPA released its first-ever standards regulating the amount of mercury that a cement plant can release into the environment. LaFarge has said that it will meet those regulations and is in the process of constructing a new plant to replace the current one. The company has estimated that it will have a new plant running by 2016. Griffin and Kunz point out that the current plant has been in operation for nearly 50 years, and that the next plant that LaFarge builds will likely last another 50 years. They are urging the state Department of Environmental Conservation to impose the strictest standards in permitting the new plant.

Griffin and Kunz started CASE in 2008 after reading that the cement plant in Ravena was the fourth dirtiest in the nation. According to the EPA, between 2002 and 2006, LaFarge pumped 400 pounds of mercury and 600 pounds of lead out of its smokestack yearly. And the list of pollutants contained in that sooty plume included ammonia, dioxins, hydrochloric acid and polycyclic aromatic compounds. Exposure to these pollutants can lead to myriad health complications, and Kunz and Griffin became alarmed when they recognized some of these illnesses in themselves, their families and neighbors. The chronic breathing problems that Kunz developed after moving back to Ravena, the childhood-developmental issues that Griffin found in her own son, and numerous other illnesses, including severe asthma, autism, and rare forms of cancer, seemed abnormally prevalent in their community.

Stone’s research has given CASE and the people who live in the shadow of that smokestack important “small strides,” said Griffin, toward “answering fundamental questions that really should have been answered 47 years ago, before any cement plant was even built: Whose health will be effected by the operation of this plant, and in what ways?”

This was a question that lingered unanswered until Stone, at CASE’s request, undertook his study.

“Our children are breathing a cocktail of these metals,” Griffin said. “How many more children must suffer with asthma, battle rare forms of cancer and be inflicted with developmental and neurological delays before we declare that enough is enough? We will continue digging for answers today, tomorrow and as long as it takes to uncover the truth the residents of our communities deserve. CASE will continue an aggressive fundraising campaign to raise the funds necessary to continue and expand Dr. Stone’s study. In addition, CASE is conducting a health study to map and identify clusters of disease in our communities.”

—Chet Hardin

For more information about CASE, you can visit the Web site,

Do We Have a Candidate?

Supporters of Corey Ellis are left to wonder what October will bring

It was more than two weeks ago today that Corey Ellis lost in his bid for the Democratic party line in November’s mayoral election. Ellis, a first-term councilman representing Albany’s Third Ward, made an impressive showing, winning 44 percent of the vote. His campaign was outspent by more than 5 to 1 by the incumbent mayor, Jerry Jennings. Ellis and his volunteer campaign staff followed the underdog’s playbook by banking significantly on a citywide canvass. They figured that if they won, it was going to be through hard work.

Since primary night, little has been heard from Ellis or his campaign. Though he lost the Democratic primary, the councilman remains on the November ballot on the Working Families Party line. Yet he has made only one public announcement since primary day, and this was in an e-mail message to his supporters: “I cannot predict what the future will bring, but I can assure you of one thing—the race to determine the next mayor of Albany is not over. Not by a long shot. And as I said on primary night, I do not feel defeated. . . . We have come so far but this campaign will continue only if we have the financial support of voters like you.”

Some volunteers, however, have been left wondering just how active Ellis’ campaign will be in the general election.

“I think part of that is because Corey hasn’t made an official decision. None of us really know what is going on at this point,” said Sara Couch, an organizer with the Working Families Party. “There is still a lot of support for him in Albany.”

“It’s been two weeks,” began Luke Gucker, a Common Council candidate in the 11th Ward, “and I talk to people at the doors when I am out in my race. I have people ask me what’s happening with Ellis.”

“People are confused,” he continued. “They want to know what is going on.”

“You’d be amazed,” Couch agreed, “at how many volunteers come in on a daily basis to see what is going on with the campaign.”

Gucker, a first-time candidate, lost in his Democratic primary against Anton Konev, but is continuing on with a general campaign on the WFP line. Couch pointed out that Gucker is a high priority to the WFP.

Ellis’ campaign would be a high priority for the Albany WFP if he wanted to rally his team, she said, but he would likely not get much support from the state chapter. The state WFP canvassed the whole city twice for Ellis during the primary, but, Couch said, the state organization would likely not be able to give that kind of support in the general. “A lot of their financial support and their canvass [efforts] are down in the city. But certainly from the local chapter, they would go straight through [to the general].”

Ellis’ campaign manager, Justin Mikulka, spoke for the campaign.

Ellis did not respond to requests for an interview for this article.

Mikulka said that the main volunteers for Ellis have been meeting, trying to formulate a potential strategy for the general election. “We were pretty preoccupied with the primary,” he said, adding that there wasn’t much thought put toward the general as “winning on a third-party line is not an easy thing to do. Winning in the primary is your best shot.”

“We didn’t have the luxury to sit around collecting fat salaries and strategize about the long-term,” Mikulka said.

According to Councilman Dominick Calsolaro (Ward 1), the Ellis campaign is waiting to see what the mayor’s budget will look like. “I know that they are going to wait to see what the budget has in it, or doesn’t have in it.”

The budget is supposed to be presented by the mayor today (Thursday).

Schenectady is looking at a potential 18 to 22 percent tax increase, according to some reporting. Troy’s mayor is warning that his city has been handed a 19-percent increase due to pension failures at the state level. Calsolaro expects that Albany will find itself in a similar position. If so, Calsolaro said, that hands Ellis a strong issue to campaign on, one that Calsolaro believes might even hurt Jennings where he is strongest, in the middle-class upper wards.

Calsolaro said that it would be hard to win in the general, but thinks Ellis has a shot.

“He got 44 percent of the vote, and if you take out the 8th, 14th, and 15th wards, he won the total vote in the other 12 wards,” Calsolaro said. “If you look at each election district for each ward, he won most of the city.”

However, Calsolaro figures that Ellis would have to send out at least two citywide mailers, in addition to paying the attendant costs of maintaining a volunteer staff. He guessed that Ellis would need about $40,000 to $50,000. According to his 10-day post-primary reporting with New York State, Ellis’ campaign had $3,447.

Mikulka said that fundraising has been weak since the primary, but not to count Ellis out.

“Corey is on the ballot,” Mikulka said, “and you can vote for him in November.”

—Chet Hardin




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