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Police officer leadership vote up in air after lost votes found

The vote was tied 107-107. That is, until an unopened envelope was found in the trash.

And so, it seemed, the hard-fought campaign to oust the Albany Police Officers Union—a local chapter of statewide law enforcement union Council 82 that has represented Albany officers for 36 years—and join a newly organized union called the Albany Police Benevolent Association had failed . . . by only one vote.

Disappointed, organizers of the insurgent union began reaching out to some of the officers who seemingly had not voted, but who had expressed their support in the weeks and months leading up to the election. “All of the envelopes are uniquely numbered,” said Ronald Dunn, attorney for the PBA. “So we know who wasn’t counted. Everyone knows that.”

What they found has caused the PBA to challenge the results of the election on grounds that not all of the legitimate votes were counted. The challenges fall into three categories. Several officers claim to have sent in their ballots before the Dec. 21 deadline, but those envelopes were not present or counted on the day of the tally. At least one other officer called in to receive his ballot, but did not get it until after the election was over. Another happened to be out of town on military leave during key dates and was unable to request a ballot, something Dunn called a procedural problem.

“This is clearly not a conspiracy,” said Dunn. “And I’m not picking on the postal service, but it should not have taken as long as it did for some of those votes to come in. This is not like a general election. We must use the postal service.” Dunn said that the holidays likely contributed to the tardiness of the mail, but also remarked that those envelopes did not have very far to travel to reach the state Public Employment Relations Board on Wolf Road in Colonie.

While both sides have made an effort to keep the reasons for the schism out of the public arena, Officer Michael Delano, president of the PBA, has been quoted as saying that high costs associated with membership fees were a concern and that dissatisfaction with Council 82’s leadership was also a significant factor. He has also claimed that the incumbent union misled voters during the election process.

Christian Mesley, current president of both Council 82 and the APOU, and James Lyman, executive director of Council 82, have both raised eyebrows within the department and throughout the community over the last year, due to lawsuits and worker’s compensation claims that many perceive as frivolous or disingenuous.

Both men brought a personal injury lawsuit against Albany County District Attorney David Soares in late 2009, claiming that they suffered “mental anguish” due to comments that Soares made about them during his 2008 campaign. Seeking damages for libel and slander, the lawsuit centers on a statement Soares made to a local television station where he claimed that the officers—who had openly opposed the DA for years—were “perpetrating what is essentially a lie.” Claiming humiliation, damaged reputations and, in Mesley’s case, stress-induced vertigo, the two men used Ennio Corsi—legal counsel paid for by the union—for 6 months until retaining their own attorney.

Additionally, both men have filed claims for workers’ compensation. Lyman, who worked for the department from 1988 until his retirement two years ago, has filed at least three, including one for an injury incurred when he tripped over a stereo speaker and another for hearing loss due to loud noises from sirens and gunfire. Mesley also recently filed a workers’ compensation claim, claiming to have lower back problems due to years of patrolling and wearing a gun belt.

Mesley also came under public scrutiny last February when he was quoted by the New York Post in response to a suggestion that, in consideration of statewide economic problems, the union may have to accept a new no-raise contract. “I’m not running a popularity contest here,” he told the Post. “If I’m the bad guy to the average citizen . . . and their taxes have to go up to cover my raise, I’m very sorry about that, but I have to look out for myself and my membership.”

Mesley had no comment for Metroland. He said that he would wait until Jan. 20, when PERB Director, Monte Klein, will meet with both parties to consider the challenges and decide on a course of action.

Dunn said that, if the challenges are upheld, “anything is possible.” A rerun election could occur, or open ballots, or even just a general recount. When asked if he thought Council 82 would fight their efforts, he said, “I expect that they will act in their own best interest, but I would hope that they want the greatest amount of officers represented. I don’t know if that will be their position.”

—Ali Hibbs

A Toxic Debate

Tests results indicate high levels of mercury in Ravena population, as plans move forward on an expansion at cement plant that may be to blame

Time is running out for public comment before the State Department of Environmental Conservation decides whether to approve a proposed multimillion-dollar plant expansion that would enable French-owned Lafarge North America to produce more cement at its Ravena plant.

Members of the community have until Feb. 22 to comment in writing on the draft environmental impact statement that will become Lafarge’s operating permit. People can also comment in person during a 6 PM Legislative hearing on Feb. 20 in the Ravena-Coeymans-Selkirk High School auditorium.

The draft permit is based on the assumption that the first-ever federal restrictions on cement plant mercury emissions will take effect by the time the plant upgrade is expected to be finished in 2014. Mercury—a potent neurotoxin—is linked with health risks ranging from lowered IQ to autism.

EPA scientists have estimated that the new regulations would prevent 2,500 premature deaths and thousands of heart attacks and respiratory incidents, and save billions of dollars in annual health costs.

However, Republicans are trying to shoot down this new U.S. Environmental Protection Agency law, which is expected to reduce mercury emissions by 90 percent. Two days after the new GOP majority took over in the U.S. House of Representatives, congressmen started pushing for a resolution to overturn the new limits.

“Without these important EPA rules, our families will continue to be exposed to mercury and other toxic pollution from the Lafarge plant in Ravena, New York,” said Susan Falzon, spokeswoman for the environmental watchdog group Friends of Hudson. “It sickens me that some of our elected leaders are trying to remove these protections.”

Former state wildlife pathologist Ward Stone found elevated mercury levels in soil, plants and animals on the western shore of the Hudson last year.

“We have found [elevated mercury levels in the schoolyard, among other places,” he said. “We found it in farm fields north of the plant and in rock from the quarry.”

Recently, Stone has turned his attention to the wildlife and soils on the eastern shore of the Hudson. So far he has taken 20 samples of soils and animals, including a woodchuck, in Columbia County.

The latest tests are showing higher heavy metal concentrations than he anticipated, he said. Stone plans to release preliminary results about his latest findings at the Jan. 20 hearing.

Last week, Michael Bank, a researcher from the Harvard School of Public Health, came to the high school across Route 9W from the cement plant to release results of his human mercury exposure study. It found elevated levels of the neurotoxin in people who live near the Lafarge Ravena cement plant on both sides of the river.

Nine percent of test subjects—all of whom live within 10 miles of the Route 9W facility—had blood mercury levels outside of New York state’s official comfort zone. Blood samples drawn from 13 out of 172 people tested exceeded the state mercury threshold of 5 parts per billion.

Individuals will not get their results until the study has undergone peer review and been published in a scholarly journal, said Bank. Those with high levels will be advised to seek medical attention, he said.

“We have provided multiple lines of evidence that, at least for mercury in blood, Ravena is higher than the national average, with the exception of childbearing women,” he said.

Usually, fish are the major source of mercury contamination. But in this study, only 16 percent of adult mercury levels and half of the children’s mercury levels could be explained by their fish consumption habits.

“There is a high mercury exposure group that doesn’t appear to be eating a lot of fish,” Bank said. “There’s a potential other source and that source has not been identified.”

Mercury wasn’t the only heavy metal Bank looked for. About 20 individuals—or roughly 12 percent of those tested—showed elevated levels of mercury, lead, aluminum or combinations of these. Such a cocktail of metals can have synergistic effects, he said.

“Twelve percent is not trivial,” Bank said. “Twelve percent of the population here had metal levels that were above the individual guidelines. There were people who had all three . . . You have to consider the chemical mixture, both in the environment and in (their systems.)”

This study is just a “standard first pass,” said Bank, who hopes to conduct “a more fine-scale analysis” in the future.

“We will definitely be looking at spatial patterns in the community—if there are clumps of people . . . who stand out,” he said.

Bank also wants “to examine the interrelationship among metals” and use mercury and lead isotopes—which serve as tracers or fingerprints—to find out where the metals originated.

Currently, Bank is exploring funding sources for follow-up research over a period of years. He would like to test the urine of a larger sample of people. “A systems level study that looks at vegetation and soils” may also be in the cards, he said.

Because coal-burning industry, including cement manufacture, emits inorganic mercury, he said, “a study of inorganic mercury in urine would be a very important test to look at a better approach for monitoring short-term local impacts.”

Asked whether the Ravena Coeymans-Selkirk school district would condone a study of students, Superintendent Daniel Teplesky said it would be up to the school board. He also said he’d like to see a breakdown of which test subjects live within the school district.

RCS Board of Education President Scott Hughes said he “wouldn’t be opposed to” a more in-depth study. There may be legal issues with conducting it on school grounds, he said.

Although Lafarge Ravena is one of the state’s top mercury polluters, nobody has proven whether that pollution is any worse near the smokestack than it is globally. The question of whether the cement plant is responsible for local health problems has divided the community.

Mary Driscoll, whose late husband worked at Lafarge Ravena, was among some 100 people who came to hear Bank announce his study results last week. She has lived in the village for 45 years.

“I feel the pollution that is coming out of their mouths is more harmful to the community than anything the cement plant can do,” Driscoll said. “When these people give up their cars, their washing machines and everything else, then they can talk about pollution.”

Selkirk resident Marcia McCoy and her 6-year-old daughter both participated in Bank’s study. They live down the road from the cement plant on Route 9W. McCoy plans to move out of range of Lafarge. She believes the plant is behind the health problems she and her children suffer from, including asthma, seizures, respiratory failure and bipolar disorder.

“There should be a stage two,” she said. “I’d like to see the urine testing and see testing at a different time of year. I think if they could get more people in the study, the results would be even higher.”

“They need to go further,” agreed Michael Carey, who ran unsuccessfully for state Senate this fall. Carey said he is interested in public policy regarding mercury poisoning, because it has been linked with autism. He got his start in politics lobbying for legislation to protect the handicapped after his institutionalized son, who suffered from autism, died after being strapped down in a van and left alone by caregivers.

Lafarge public relations specialist Saleem Cheeks also came to hear the study results. Asked to comment, he handed over a prepared statement from Lafarge environmental manager John Reagan.

“Like our neighbors, we look forward to a complete understanding of Dr. Bank’s study, including the testing protocols he used and his detailed results,” it said.

—Laurie Lynn Fischer

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