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No Environmental Health Hazards Here
Critics blast New York state cancer-control plan for letting polluters off the hook

New York state has just released a final version of its Comprehensive Cancer Control Plan, but several interest groups say its new recommendations do not go nearly far enough.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention spearheaded the effort to get states to initiate broad, integrated approaches to cancer prevention. A model plan from the CDC was tailored for New York by a group of American Cancer Society members, the state Department of Health and research institutes like Sloan-Kettering.

New York’s plan encourages the public to prevent cancer through exercise, good diet, and not smoking, and emphasizes early detection. But many advocacy groups think these are only pieces of the prevention puzzle. Cancer Action New York, New York Public Interest Research Group, the New York State Breast Cancer Network and Capital Region Action Against Breast Cancer have all come out criticizing the plan because it inadequately accounts for larger problems, particularly environmental pollution, that effectively prevent a truly healthy lifestyle.

The draft plan, released in March, barely included environmental factors. Rather, the plan concentrates on management and control, putting the onus on the public to regulate its own exposure to confirmed or probable environmental carcinogens.

“Many cancer survivors we serve, including myself, are physically active, eat well, and do not smoke, nor do we fit the other high-risk categories. Consequently, our cancer cannot be blamed on bad habits or lifestyle choices,” said Joan Sheehan, copresident of CRAAB, at an August press conference.

“They talk about skin cancer and the need to use sunscreen, but nothing about protecting the ozone layer,” said NYPIRG’s Laura Haight. “They’re urging people to eat more fruits and vegetables, but nowhere do they say eat organic fruits and vegetables.”

To Donald Hassig of Cancer Action New York, the Department of Health’s “war on cancer is only about treatment.”

“For instance, they suggest that in order to reduce dioxin exposure, girls and women should drink low-fat milk. But they don’t say, ‘We should do something that would reduce dioxin emissions.’ We know that backyard burning of trash in burn barrels is the major source of dioxin emissions. We don’t have a law that bans that,” explained Haight.

On Tuesday (Sept. 9), the state released a revised version of its cancer-control plan, which acknowledges more environmental factors, including dioxin, arsenic and toxic emissions, but keeps the burden of cancer prevention on the individual.

At a press conference Tuesday, Don Distasio, CEO of the American Cancer Society of New York and New Jersey, called environmental causes of cancer a “complicated issue,” saying that they “need to be on the table” for inclusion in the state’s still- developing approaches to cancer.

In the meantime, the plan relies on the state’s existing environmental regulations to protect the public against cancer risks.

“While the cancer-control plan recognizes that the environment is linked to cancer, and it mentions specific carcinogens, it fails to say how exposures to these toxins will be reduced,” said Margaret Roberts on behalf of NYSBCN. The groups critical of the plan want the state to include new, tighter environmental restrictions on industry and agriculture as part of the plan’s measurable goals.

The inclusion of environmental factors is important, said Haight, because “this document is a tool for directing research funds, and even a tool for directing public policy.”

“It’s the way we do things that causes cancer, and people don’t want to face up to it,” Hassig said. “The governor has proven himself to be especially industry-friendly. . . . He doesn’t want his commissioner of health to point fingers at any industry.”

The New York State Department of Health did not return any of Metroland’s calls.

“We need to put the precautionary principle to work,” said Haight. “You don’t have to have complete scientific evidence of harm; if you have enough of a body of evidence that suggests harm, you should do something about it now, as opposed to the stacked-body approach to public health.”

The Breast Cancer Network could not agree more. “Existing regulatory mechanisms in New York state do not protect our citizens,” said Roberts.

When asked if the precautionary principle should be included in public policy, Dr. Distasio, as supporter of the current plan, said that is “absolutely the case.”

The state does view its cancer plan as an evolving process, subject to change. Still, many groups like NYSBCN are left to wonder if anything will actually come of it.

“New York state missed the opportunity to implement meaningful public policy by failing to incorporate the precautionary principle in its official cancer-control plan,” said Roberts.

—Ashley Hahn

What’s That Smell?
New evidence shows the Albany County redistricting process was flawed from the start

According to documents acquired by Metroland, the Albany County Legislature’s protracted redistricting fiasco showed signs of impropriety from its earliest stages.

The controversy centers on when companies bidding for the contract to redraw the county’s voting districts were given knowledge regarding their legal responsibility to defend the maps they would create for the county.

Every 10 years, in accordance with new census data, legislative bodies across the country enter the often-contentious process of redrawing the lines that determine voting districts.

As has been reported in this paper and elsewhere, Albany County has been embroiled in a series of federal legal challenges over the past few months stating that black and Hispanic voters received inadequate representation in the county’s new voting maps. Now, documents recently discovered by Metroland shed light on what appears to be another tainted area of the county’s redistricting debacle: its bidding process.

These documents show that the county’s attorney accepted costly legal responsibilities for the new voting-district maps well after companies had placed their bids based on a request-for-proposals which stated that the companies themselves would be required to pay for any legal costs. In other words, companies that factored legal costs into their proposals would have bid much more competitively had they known that the county would foot the bill for any legal challenge to the maps.

No new proposal was produced, and at least one consultant whose high bid cost him the contract said the change in terms amounts to little more than a “bait and switch.”

“The indemnification clause was the poison pill,” said John J. McEneny of Hudson Valley Demographics, also a New York state assemblyman and a former Albany County legislator. “The reason we bid so high was because we were afraid of the court costs. There was very intimidating language in the [proposal] regarding legal responsibility, and we probably would’ve bid a third of what we did had we known we’d be covered in court.”

According to the initial terms sent out by the Albany County Purchasing Department on March 15, 2002, interested bidders were informed that they would be responsible for any legal costs incurred because of a challenge to the maps they created.

The consultant who draws the maps “shall defend, indemnify and save harmless the county, its employees and agents, from and against all claims, damages, losses and expenses . . . arising out of, or in consequence of, any negligent or intentional act or omission . . . ,” reads the request for proposals.

But according to the minutes from a meeting of the redistricting commission held on April 24, 2002—nine days after the deadline for bids to be submitted to the county—a letter was circulated to commission members stating that County Attorney Michael Lynch would be responsible for the costly legal process should the adopted redistricting plan face a court challenge.

An amended proposal stating that the county attorney would handle court costs was never created, and the county’s redistricting contract was awarded to GeoPolitical Strategies, the lowest bidder at $37,800. GeoPolitical finished its maps for the county in late October 2002, the maps were adopted by the legislature on Nov. 12, 2002, and an official legal challenge was filed in federal court this past April. Lynch took on all legal responsibilities in response to the challenge.

McEneny said that his firm’s bid of $97,425, more than double the lowest bid, was padded because he feared that any plan he created may have faced a legal challenge.

“To show you the cost of redistricting, I just did the City of Cohoes, six districts, for $4,000,” McEneny said. “Redistricting itself isn’t expensive, but you’ve got to prepare yourself for legal costs in contentious districts.”

But Betsy Weiss, legal counsel for the Albany County Legislature’s Democratic majority, told Metroland that the indemnification clause holds the consultant responsible for legal challenges only in the event of a “negligent or intentional act or omission.” Weiss refused further comment and directed all further inquiries to County Attorney Lynch.

Lynch was in federal court defending the county’s redistricting proposal on Tuesday when approached by Metroland. He refused comment and did not return phone calls for this story.

County Legislator Susan Tatro (R-Colonie), a member of the county’s redistricting committee, rebuffed Weiss’ statement regarding the consultant’s legal responsibilities for the voting maps.

“I thought that it should be the practice that the consultant would have to indemnify their plan and [the county] would not have to be paying [the consultant] to defend the plan,” Tatro said. “[The consultant] should have to stand behind their work.”

These findings come on the heels of testimony given this week by Phillip Chonigman, the consultant with GeoPolitical Strategies who drew the contested maps for the county, who said he was unaware of an indemnification clause in the initial request for proposals. Chonigman further testified that he was receiving $90 per hour from the county to testify on the county’s behalf.

“You don’t wait till you get the price you want and then change the rules,” McEneny said. “The indemnification clause was probably why you only had three firms bid for the job. Due process didn’t take place.”

—Travis Durfee

Get out and stay out: the National Lead site in Colonie. Photo: Chris Shields

Something in the Air
A federal report linking pollution to cancer at National Lead site has residents worried and legislators looking for answers

The scars of industry can last long after the plumes from a factory’s smokestack are gone.

A federal report issued in late August by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, has linked pollution from the former National Lead plant in Colonie to potential health risks.

The agency found that the “past [depleted uranium] emissions from the plant were a public health hazard, and may possibly have increased the risk of kidney disease and lung cancer, particularly for smokers who had lived near the plant. The extent to which risk was increased, however, is unknown.”

Now, many area residents are wondering if their diseases are linked to the pollutants from National Lead’s waste—a suspicion some have held for some time. State Assemblyman Robert Prentiss (R-Colonie) and his wife, County Legislator Marlene Prentiss (R-Colonie), are leading the charge to get more answers about the local health problems and the culpability of the company and the government.

“We’re . . . calling upon the attorney general to investigate any potential claims New York state has against NL,” said Assemblyman Prentiss, who is looking into a class action lawsuit. Prentiss also wants a complete health study of those who live or have lived near the National Lead site.

Dr. Michael Brooks, the report’s author, cautioned in the Times Union that “one out of three people in the general population will contract cancer.”

But in a letter responding to the Sept. 1 article, the presidents of Capital Region Action Against Breast Cancer countered, “[Dr. Brooks’] statistic reflects cancers acquired over a long lifetime and includes cases of the more common sun-exposure skin cancers and lung cancers that are directly linked to smoking. People who live near the Colonie site are reporting less common forms of cancer contracted at relatively young ages.” CRAAB has criticized a recent state report on cancer prevention for ignoring environmental factors like National Lead’s pollution. [See related story, page 12.]

ATSDR did not return Metroland’s phone calls for this article.

Assemblyman Prentiss, who lives within a half-mile of the former plant, has collected the names and stories of more than 50 afflicted residents so far. “We’re not talking about just kidney disorders and lung cancer,” he said, “but bone and breast cancer, MS, birth defects, learning disabilities.” Asthma, reproductive problems, and autoimmune diseases were also commonly reported by nearby residents.

The National Lead Industries plant operated at 1130 Central Ave. until it was shut down in 1984 for noncompliance with clean-air regulations.

The plant started as a brass and lead foundry, but turned to manufacturing munitions and aircraft parts containing depleted uranium in the late 1950s. As environmental regulations were implemented in the 1970s, lead- and uranium-based production was replaced with newer methods. Still, from 1979 to 1984, the National Lead plant released depleted uranium into the air—at a rate 54,000 times above today’s legal emissions limit.

National Lead has admitted its emissions contained toxic particles and radioactive materials, which spread downwind through Colonie, West Albany and Arbor Hill.

Last Friday, the Prentisses coordinated a public hearing with representatives from the ATSDR and the Army Corps of Engineers, which has been responsible for the 11-acre site’s cleanup since 1997. More than 200 people attended. “We came to get answers to our questions, and we left with more questions than before and even less answers,” Prentiss said. “Why was this nuclear munitions factory allowed to operate smack in the middle of an urban neighborhood anyway?”

The full report is available for review and comment at the William K. Stanford Town Library, 632 Albany Shaker Road, Loudonville, until Oct. 3. Prentiss is seeking an extension of the period for public comment on the report, and is planning a second public hearing.

—Ashley Hahn

Block for sale: 182 Delaware Ave. and its neighbors. Photo: Alicia Solsman

Where Goes the Neighborhood?
Speculation is flying about the future of a row of buildings for sale on Delaware Avenue

When large for-sale signs went up at 182, 184, 186, and 188 Delaware Avenue almost a year ago, residents were surprised. “It was a shock to us who woke up one morning and [saw] all those for-sale signs,” said Louise McNeilly, president of the Delaware Avenue Neighborhood Association. “[The] neighborhood . . . looks like it’s entirely up for sale. It makes you uneasy, sort of uncomfortable.” The properties are two blocks south of Lincoln Park, on the northern edge of the Delaware Area Neighborhood.

But part of that discomfort may have been about more than just large signs. The commercial real-estate listing for numbers 182 through 200 describes the lots as “a great location for a fast food chain, pharmacy, mini market, large professional building.” The promotion worried several neighborhood activists, including McNeilly and Shawn Morris, the city councilwoman representing the area who is also vice chair of the zoning board.

“A large-scale commercial development would not be appropriate right in the midst of our pedestrian-friendly residential neighborhood,” said McNeilly. “While we welcome small businesses, the impact of a national food chain, for example, would be negative—more litter, less community control, more traffic, less character, more fat.”

Despite the language of the advertisement, Matthew J. Ryan, owner of the properties, insists—with some exasperation—that he has no intention of selling them to a franchise, and in fact has turned down a few who were interested. “I can’t see knocking down a building that’s already there,” said Ryan, who said he frequently purchases buildings scheduled for demolition and renovates them instead.

Ryan claims the franchise listing was “probably my realtor’s idea,” but appears not to have told him to change it. The properties are marketed as a package deal, Ryan said, for convenience and because they have a shared parking lot in back.

Ryan, who grew up around the corner on Morton Avenue, started buying buildings on this section of Delaware Avenue three years ago, because, he said, “there’s a lot of potential. It’s a nice large community there that can be saved.” He refurbished the houses, which he says were in bad shape and filled with drug dealers, and says he is now exceedingly selective about his tenants, doing extensive credit checks and requiring a credit card. He has businesses lined up for the vacant storefronts at number 200, and is donating one of the spaces to the police for a community policing outpost. Tenants seem happy with the quality of the homes.

So why are the buildings for sale? “My work is done,” said Ryan. “I went through, fixed them up, got rid of the crap. Now it’s time to move on.” Ryan, who owns buildings throughout the Capital Region through his company Prime Rate and Return, is still acquiring other buildings in the neighborhood, however, and doesn’t seem in a big hurry to sell the ones he has—the package deal is set at more than $1 million.

“Let’s face it, there’s not a lot of people willing to spend $1 million on Delaware Avenue,” said realtor Douglas Schenk, who is representing the properties. “[It] was my recommendation to list them separately as well.”

But Terry Taylor, a local resident who has been working for Ryan renovating the buildings, wouldn’t be so quick to write off the possibility. He said the area has gotten a lot busier in the past few years, and some sort of fast-food franchise “would get a lot of business.”

“I know I’m asking a ridiculous price,” admitted Ryan, unperturbed. “Actually a Burger King would go perfect there. But I’m a realist, and I know it’s not going to happen. I’m trying to make it more of a neighborhood.”

Still, McNeilly is worried about having so many properties for sale at once. The neighborhood has been having some problems with unresponsive absentee landlords, so she’s very aware that these houses could be bought by “the wrong person,” which she said could have a big negative impact. Nonetheless, she’s cautiously pleased by the prospect of local businesses. It would be great, she said, “if he’s sincere about wanting to sell to a positive [owner].”

Councilwoman Morris agrees, saying her main concern is that whatever goes there is positive for the neighborhood. “It has to be pedestrian-friendly—this is a walking neighborhood,” she said. “We are always willing to work with people . . . to find something that works.”

—Miriam Axel-Lute

No Veterans in My Backyard
Albany is trying to revoke a veterans’ home’s zoning permit—even though the violation has been fixed

David Stacey can’t win for losing. On Aug. 11, the director of the Albany Housing Coalition was arrested for zoning violations at the Tyler Arms veterans’ home at 688 Madison Ave. The problem? He had allowed St. John’s Project Lift, a drug and alcohol rehabilitation program, to temporarily move 12 clients into the building when they lost their own space.

Although it took a while to find new places for Project Lift’s clients—some have gone to other agencies, some were put on a fast track to graduation and independence—as of last week, they were all moved out of Tyler Arms. Nonetheless, last night the zoning board of appeals heard a request from Commissioner of Public Safety John Nielsen to revoke the special-use permit for Tyler Arms, which was created five years ago as a 60-unit single-room-occupancy home for low-income, elderly veterans.

“I really am at a loss,” said Stacey. “If it was just the Project Lift people, then it should’ve gone away when they were gone.”

But it’s become quite clear that it’s not just about Project Lift. “The neighbors have been complaining that there are people other than veterans in there for a substantial period prior to the closing of Project Lift,” said Commissioner Nielsen. “The neighbors have a right to know that the permit as issued is being adhered to.”

Stacey admitted that aside from Project Lift, he has rented a few rooms to nonveterans who were otherwise “very similar” to his other clients because the residence has had trouble filling all its rooms with vets and has been losing money. The coalition had already applied—before the Project Lift controversy—to the zoning board of appeals to remove the veterans-only restriction. Members of the coalition board say they think the restriction may be in violation of the Federal Fair Housing Act anyway.

But is there any problem here besides a technical zoning violation? “I don’t know how frail or elderly people make an unsafe neighborhood—maybe they’re afraid of people getting run over by an ambulance,” said Stacey. He pointed out that there are landlords across the city with serious code violations who are left alone, while the coalition maintains the building at the federal life safety standards (higher than required by the city) and even put $1,000 worth of flowers into the grounds this year.

Stacey said Nielsen has cited hundreds of police calls to the building as part of the problem. But, he said, the numbers are misleading. There were 216 emergency calls regarding 688 Madison in 18 months (January 2002 to June 2003), but 124 represent EMS-related calls. Most medical emergencies, and many other incidents, generate at least two separate calls. Fifteen 911 hang-up calls were traced to a crossed telephone wire. Dozens more were from resident veterans suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, who often called 911 with imagined troubles. All told, fewer than a dozen incidents seem to have been of a serious, non-medical nature, and only one involved alcohol.

Maurice Benno, who has owned the neighboring property at 692 Madison for 20 years, isn’t willing to write the problems off. He lost tenants, he said, when they learned that a “halfway house” (referring to Project Lift) was operating next door, and he said he has had numerous other problems with noise and people parking in his tenants’ spaces. Benno insisted he has nothing against housing Vietnam vets. But, he added, “the fact that they are losing money [and bringing non-vets in] is not my problem. This was not supposed to be like this.”

Sharon Facteau, director of Project Lift, said Benno’s complaints were not actually about her clients, but other people who had gathered on the premises. “Our guys are tightly controlled,” she said. “They are always supervised.”

In any case, Project Lift is gone, and the threat of a zoning change remains. A number of people have expressed concern that the city’s heavy-handed approach in this case is representative of a larger pattern. “Any time anyone in a neighborhood complains . . . for some reason the mayor . . . makes their opinion the determining factor,” said Donna DeMaria, executive director of the Homeless Action Committee, which has had to sue the city in the past in order to get permits to build its facilities. “There are lots of problems everywhere with people calling the police about neighbors, students who are partying,” she added. “The thing you have going for you with a place like Tyler Arms, you have it managed.”

Tyler Arms has been losing enough money that the coalition has put it on the market, though there’s still some reluctance within the organization to give up on it.

The veterans’ residence is 100-percent privately financed with a $7,000 per month mortgage. If rezoning forces it to close it could spell disaster for the coalition, which is a fixture in Albany’s affordable housing community. “If . . . the coalition can’t do its work any more, [that’s] a tremendous loss to the city,” said DeMaria. “We can’t let that happen.”

—Miriam Axel-Lute

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