You Read My Lab Report?
City School District plans to go through with middle-school
construction in Westland Hills Park despite neighborhood concerns
is potential for a serious health crisis here, and nobody
appears to be taking us seriously,” said Sally D’Agostino.
D’Agostino, a member of Friends of Westland Hills Park an
Environmental Coalition, a group opposed to the Albany City
School District’s plan to construct a third middle school
in the city’s Westland Hills Park on Colvin Avenue, met with
the state Department of Environmental Conservation last week
to voice her frustration that the group’s concerns about asbestos,
which was found in the park last summer, were falling on deaf
are really worried that if the school district begins digging
into the ground, then the asbestos will become airborne,”
said D’Agostino. “This could pose a huge health risk to anyone
who inhales it.”
Last summer, D’Agostino, a former Occupational Safety and
Health Administrator who is certified in hazardous waste and
emergency response, found asbestos in the park where the school
district had planned to build an access road for the school.
The proposal to build the school, the third middle school
for the city, is part of a $175 million facilities plan that
Albany voters passed in December.
D’Agostino says she took soil samples and sent them to a lab,
and that the results came back positive for asbestos. One
sample contained 44-percent chrysotile asbestos, which D’Agostino
described as white, fibrous and friable, or easily crushed.
She said that if the material were crushed, it could become
airborne and easily inhaled, poising a health threat to all
of those who live in the area and frequent the park.
From 1938 to 1958, the Westland Hills site was home to Coyle
Wrecking and Lumber Company, whose junkyard stored car parts
and building debris.
Lisa Stratton, spokeswoman for the school district, said that
the district has since decided to move the access road; however,
she said the decision was not because of the group’s concerns
about asbestos but due to an effort to preserve more green
space in the park.
Even though the access road will no longer be in the same
location, D’Agostino said that the asbestos still remains
in the ground. She said that construction so close to the
contamination could stir up the soil and spread the asbestos
into to the surrounding area.
real problem comes when you dig into it,” said D’Agostino.
“We don’t want things dug up without precautions being taken
to eliminate airborne dust hazards that could carry asbestos,
lead and other things to our neighborhood homes and contaminate
the rest of the park.”
Jon Gurney, director of design management for Pike/Heery,
the company chosen to act as program manager for the district’s
construction project, said that the proposed 3.3-acre school
site was tested for asbestos but the results came back negative.
preliminary investigations last year never revealed any asbestos
or potential suspect material on the site of the building,”
said Gurney. “That is a public misconception. There may be
asbestos on park lands, but on the area that we have looked
at for the building, there was never any.”
However, Gurney said that the tests did reveal some petroleum-based
contaminants in the soil. As a result, there will be a substantial
amount of soil remediation on the proposed site.
good news is that at the end of the day, after we remove the
soil, it will be clean, and there will be no contamination
in the direct area of the school,” said Gurney. “As far as
the rest of the park, that is not the school district’s concern.
That’s the city’s park.”
All of the methods used for testing, said Gurney, must be
filed with the state departments of Environmental Conservation
and Health before any permits can be issued.
But many people contend that there is no way that such a massive
construction project as building a new school will not disrupt
the rest of the park, and therefore stir up the asbestos.
city has had this property and nobody has raised the issue
of what is buried under it, but the construction is going
to put a whole new complexion on it,” said Albany Alderman
Michael O’Brien [Ward 12]. “They are going to say we are only
constructing on three acres, but show me a contractor who
is going to come in and confine everything to three acres.
He is going to have his equipment spread all over the place,
so there really is potential to disrupt a lot of stuff.”
think the city of Albany would be rather upset with us if
we started disrupting the rest of the park,” said Gurney.
“We plan to work within the parameters where the school site
will be going, and that area has been tested.”
Further, O’Brien said that it is shortsighted for the school
to not be concerned with the rest of the park.
are the same kids that during the day may be going over to
the park, and if there is hazardous material, what do you
suggest we do?” he asked.
Bill Bruce, commissioner of the city’s Department of General
Services, said that city took D’Agostino’s concerns quite
seriously and immediately conducted tests in conjunction with
the state’s Labor Department and the Albany County Health
is almost completely untrue,” said Bruce. “The only asbestos
that was found on site was on some construction debris that
had been illegally dumped in the woods. It is not airborne
asbestos, and it is not in the soil in the park. It is no
way creating a public health or safety hazard.”
DEC spokesman Peter Constantakes said that his agency, along
with the state and county departments of health and the state
Department of Labor, are all working together to further investigate
the extent of contamination.
asbestos, there are various options,” said Constantakes. “We
will make sure that, as always, public health and the environment
are protected. But at this point we are still trying to determine
the extent and nature of the problem.”
D’Agostino said that the group was pleased with its meeting
with the DEC. But she said that the asbestos still sits there,
out in the open, and that that is alarming.
are kids right now playing ball next to a pile of very friable
asbestos,” said D’Agostino. “We could have another Love Canal
on our hands if we don’t handle this situation properly.”
years of nonviolent protest, Colombia’s U’wa people win their
quiet battle against Occidental Petroleum
not much good news coming out of war-torn Colombia these days,
but Friday was a notable exception. With no great fanfare,
Occidental Petroleum, the multinational giant that has gained
infamy in environmental circles, announced at its annual shareholder
meeting in Santa Monica, Calif., that it was relinquishing
control of Siriri, the oil block in Colombia on the ancestral
land of the U’wa people.
The official line was that after exploratory drilling came
up dry last summer, Occidental geologists concluded that it
was not scientifically wise to carry on the project. “This
was a high-risk well from a technical standpoint,” said Occidental
spokesman Larry Meriage.
But environmentalists had a different take. “It just shows
that drilling for oil in ancestral territories of indigenous
communities in a tropical rainforest region is an unviable
and untenable business plan,” said Michael Brune of the Rainforest
According to one activist who has closely followed local developments,
when the U’wa realized Occidental intended to proceed with
the drilling, the tribe prayed for the oil to “move.” Maybe
the dry well was simply proof that the universe is the best
arbiter in matters of such consequence.
However you spin it, this was a colossal victory for the U’wa,
a tribe of just 5,000 souls, whose scrappy, grassroots struggle
against Occidental began nearly a decade ago. The U’wa said
the oil operation threatened the basic welfare of civilians
who would be caught in the crossfire of Colombia’s civil war.
The battle over power and resources—perpetrated by the Colombian
military, leftist FARC guerrillas, right-wing paramilitaries
and drug traffickers—has ravaged any semblance of normalcy
for Colombians. People are kidnapped and murdered in what
amounts to a perpetual, surreal chess match. (Staking its
own territorial claim in the war, the Bush Administration
is pushing the U.S. Congress to authorize $98 million in military
aid to defend another Occidental venture, the Caño-Limon pipeline,
a private enterprise that runs through U’wa land.)
At great odds and at great risk to their survival, the U’wa
have taken a nonviolent tack toward self-determination. When
Occidental’s plans in Siriri became clear in the early ’90s,
U’wa tribal leaders diligently filed lawsuits, lobbied at
corporate headquarters, and mobilized peaceful blockades at
well sites to block Occidental. When the magnitude of the
multinational’s political muscle proved insurmountable, the
U’wa took their struggle to sympathetic progressive groups
in United States and around the world, where it galvanized
an overwhelming response.
In one of the best-covered protests, demonstrators outside
the 2000 Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles denounced
Al Gore’s insensitivity to the U’wa people. At the time, Gore
was a major stockholder in Occidental, and the U’wa had threatened
a mass suicide if the company went forward with its plan to
Occidental—which banked $14 billion in sales last year—probably
didn’t lose much sleep over the bad press. After six months
of drilling, the company says it decided it was no longer
fiscally worthwhile to continue to explore this “wildcat well,”
where the likelihood of striking oil was one in 12.
of force: residents flocked to Common Council meetings
in 1999 and 2000 to call for stronger civilian oversight
of police. Photo byKris Qua
Albany’s year-old Citizen’s Police Review Board done anything
to improve oversight of the men and women in blue?
year after it first began receiving complaints in May 2001,
the city of Albany’s Citizen’s Police Review Board is still
not quite what advocates had hoped it would be. Citizens of
Albany have clamored for the city to establish a civilian
review board since the ’80s; when the city’s Common Council
finally began to seriously debate the creation of the board
in the wake of alleged police misconduct and abuse in Albany’s
Arbor Hill neighborhood in 1999, citizens flocked to meetings
to demand an independent, objective body that would be able
to investigate complaints of police brutality, civil rights
violations and incivility. In short, they wanted a board with
What they got was a compromise legislation: In July 2000,
the Common Council created the Citizens’ Police Review Board,
which has the power to “review” and “comment on” investigations
of police behavior, which are investigated internally by the
Albany Police Department’s Office of Professional Standards.
The purpose of the board, according to its annual report released
in January 2002, is to “improve communication between the
police department and the community, to increase police accountability
and credibility with the public and to create a complaint
review process that is free from bias and informed of actual
police practices.” While even critics agree that the board
has been a step in the right direction, and Albany’s Public
Safety Commissioner John Nielsen reports that he has been
pleased with its progress thus far, the board determined in
its own annual review that its function continues to be a
“work in progress.”
And according to the New York Civil Liberties Union Capital
Region Chapter, which does not mince words when it comes to
critiquing police-community relations, there are still “significant
impediments” to the board’s ability to provide the effective,
independent oversight of police that the public has clamored
According to Louise Roback, director of the New York Civil
Liberties Union’s Capital Region Chapter, the ideal police
review board would have had the power to perform its own investigations
of police misconduct; instead, the city gave it the power
to appoint a special monitor to oversee the internal investigation
performed by the APD—but only when complaints allege that
officers used excessive force or violated civil rights. But
according to a report released by the NYCLU’s Capital Region
Chapter last week, A First Year Assessment of the City of
Albany Citizens’ Police Review Board, the board has the power
only to review the APD’s investigations after they are completed.
board has no power to interview complainants, witnesses or
the police officer,” the report indicates. “While several
complainants have attended CPRB meetings and addressed the
board, no witnesses or police officers have addressed the
board. The board is limited to reviewing OPS investigations
after the fact.”
Which means that the board still falls short of what citizens
and review-board advocates demanded when the legislation was
being drafted; now Roback and the NYCLU are requesting that
the city take the “work in progress” board that it has created,
review its effectiveness and adopt a number of improvements
that would strengthen it.
renewed our call for the full range of powers for the board,”
Roback said. “Now, we recognize that may not occur—I don’t
know if the Common Council and particularly the mayor are
at this point any more inclined to grant those increased powers
than they were before. So in recognition of the political
realities, we have made many recommendations within the framework
that the board is already operating in.”
For example, the NYCLU has suggested that the board be granted
the power to conduct its own investigations, ensure that its
monitors “actively” monitor the police department’s investigations
and, last but not least, be able allowed to hire staff to
assist in its research work. As it stands, Roback said, the
board does not have its own staff (its files and reports are
maintained by Albany Law School’s Government Law Center),
and its members receive no compensation for the time they
spend playing watchdog to the police department’s watchdog.
Finally, Roback pointed out that of more than 22 complaints
the review board has examined since last year, the APD has
not made public a “final determination” on a single complaint
that went before the board. In the course of the past year,
the board made specific recommendations regarding strip searches,
racial profiling, frisking, harassment and sexual-orientation
sensitivity training; however, Roback said, the APD has not
formally responded to the board on its recommendations.
Nielsen, however, said that he has communicated with the board
on all of the cases that have gone before it, and he denied
a suggestion in Tuesday’s Times Union that he had “failed
to provide final determinations for most of the [cases]”:
business about the Law Center saying they don’t get timely
information, the reports that they’re talking about are the
final reports, after we’ve had meeting after meeting,” Nielsen
said. “[The Office of] Professional Standards has reported
to the board and the board has made their decisions about
how they feel about the case. Then I give them a final report
as to whether I agree with them. I think there were four cases
where the review board did not agree with the findings of
OPS. And it wasn’t that they disagreed with them, but they
made comments on it. They suggested things. And each time
they would suggest something, I would go to the next meeting
and go to them and talk about how we were going to address
Overall, Nielsen said, he has been pleased with the function
of the city’s review board—though he, too, acknowledged that
there are some elements that may need to be worked on in the
overall, I think it’s going great,” he said. “I think it’s
going very well. I think the board members have confidence
in the administration of the police department. And the administration
of the police department is finding with the board and board
members . . . that they have a really good working relationship
with the board. And the rank and file, the labor representatives,
I think we’re developing a sense of confidence in both directions
there. . . . So I think it’s working out very well.”
speaks louder than words: Protesters called for Superfund
refinancing last Monday.Photo byWill
Up Your Act, Already
protest absence of Superfund refinancing plan in preliminary
Wednesday (May 1), when Gov. George Pataki, Senate Majority
Leader Joseph Bruno (R-Brunswick) and Assembly Speaker Sheldon
Silver (D-Manhattan) announced that they had agreed on a “conceptual
framework” for New York state’s budget, many people were relieved
to hear that a deal might be just around the corner. But when
word got out that the future of the state’s
Superfund program had not yet been discussed, environmental
and community groups quickly became concerned.
As a result, a group of activists silently crowded the outer
lobby of the New York State Senate chambers last Monday (May
6), greeting New York state lawmakers as they walked in and
out of session. The protesters held signs covering their mouths
that read, simply, “Save the Superfund Now.”
said it’s their top priority this year, but yet nothing has
been mentioned about it,” said Kathy Curtis, codirector of
Citizens’ Environmental Coalition. “The program is bankrupt
and has been for over a year.”
The state’s Superfund program facilitates the cleanup and
investigation of toxic-waste sites in New York. Curtis said
that the Superfund has been bankrupt since March 31, 2002,
when the last of the $1.2 billion set aside in 1986 for cleanup
was spent, leaving 800 sites statewide in need of environmental
testing, cleanup or monitoring. The fund had enough money
this past year to continue with projects that had already
begun, but no money to spend on new sites.
Mike Livermore, spokesman for the New York Public Interest
Research Group, said that the longer the state waits to refinance
the fund, the more dangerous and expensive the problem becomes.
longer we wait, the more these dumps can spread and contaminate
the air, water and soil around them, causing cancer and birth
defects and other problems,” said Livermore.
Curtis points to the Dewey Loeffell Landfill in Rensselaer
County as one example in which cleanup was delayed. As a result,
the contamination spread 2.5 miles into Nassau Lake, exposing
more people to toxic pollution.
that had been remediated in a timely fashion, it wouldn’t
have had the opportunity to spread and expose all of those
people,” said Curtis. “So what is the holdup? There are many
more sites just like that across the state.”
Refinancing of the state’s Superfund program has been stalled
for years, with Gov. Pataki and the state Assembly in sharp
disagreement over what its funding formula should be: Pataki’s
proposals to refinance it, critics say, would make the Superfund
more business-friendly by shifting more of the funding burden
off polluters and onto the backs of taxpayers. His proposal
would also lower the state’s cleanup standards. Both ideas
have been met with resistance from legislators and environmentalists,
who are wary of Pataki’s proposal because they say it weakens
the cleanup policy already in place and prioritizes reforming
the program over refinancing it.
Eileen Larrabee, spokeswoman for Speaker Silver, said that
the three state leaders probably will decide the future of
the program during final negotiation stages of the budget.
She said that Silver, along with many environmentalists, is
rallying behind a Superfund bill already before the Assembly,
sponsored by Assemblyman Thomas Dinapoli (D-L-Great Neck).
The bill seeks to restore funding to the program by providing
$200 million annually for site investigation and cleanups
through bonds issued by the Environmental Facilities Corporation.
This is in contrast with the governor’s funding proposal,
which would provide only $90 million annually.
year’s budget must refinance the Superfund so that we can
move forward with cleaning up toxic sites,” said Livermore.
“The governor should stop holding the Superfund hostage to
weakening cleanup standards and refinance the program.”
Neither Gov. Pataki’s nor Sen. Bruno’s offices returned calls
to comment on this story.