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Didn’t You Read My Lab Report?

Albany City School District plans to go through with middle-school construction in Westland Hills Park despite neighborhood concerns about asbestos

‘There 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 ears.

“We 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.

“The 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.

“The 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.

“The 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.

“The 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.”

Gurney disagreed.

“I 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.

“Those 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 Department.

“It 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.

“With 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.

“There 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.”

—Nancy Guerin

Victory is U’was

After years of nonviolent protest, Colombia’s U’wa people win their quiet battle against Occidental Petroleum

There’s 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 Action Network.

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 drill.

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.

—Gabrielle Banks


Show of force: residents flocked to Common Council meetings in 1999 and 2000 to call for stronger civilian oversight of police. Photo byKris Qua

After Further Review...

Has Albany’s year-old Citizen’s Police Review Board done anything to improve oversight of the men and women in blue?

One 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 “teeth.”

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 for.

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.

“The 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.

“We 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]”:

“This 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 it.”

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 future.

“But 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.”

—Erin Sullivan

Silence speaks louder than words: Protesters called for Superfund refinancing last Monday.Photo byWill Waldron

Clean Up Your Act, Already

Activists protest absence of Superfund refinancing plan in preliminary budget agreement

Last 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.”

“Everyone 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.

“The 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.

“If 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.

“This 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.

—N.G.


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