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13WHAM Investigation: Geneva soil contamination

Geneva, NY - In the fall of 2016, the state Department of Environmental Conservation announced a massive project to replace the soil on 220 properties in Geneva because of elevated lead and arsenic levels. The project, which is expected start this year, will cost close to $17 million.

The DEC was able to link the contamination to the former scrap iron foundry located on Jackson Street. But 13WHAM has learned that state and local officials knew about potential dangers in the soil of some properties for decades.

Documents show the DEC first tested the property next to the foundry site in 1986 and found spilled fluids and excessive levels of lead and other metals.

In 1998, the City of Geneva acquired the foundry property and did more testing that showed elevated metal levels next door to the site and in properties at least a block away.

In 2005 and 2006, even more testing. More than 40 properties were tested with more than half showing elevated lead levels, and almost two-thirds showing elevated levels of arsenic in the soil. Some tests showed levels more than two and even three times higher than what is recommended by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Throughout all of this testing, it appears no one living in the area was ever notified about the potential dangers.

13WHAM submitted Freedom of Information Requests to the City of Geneva, the DEC and the Department of Health asking for a copy of any warnings sent to residents during the investigation. Not one was provided.

The City of Geneva declined to comment on this story due to a pending lawsuit.

The Department of Health provided the following statement:

"While the individual threats from exposure to either lead or arsenic in Geneva are likely to be small, DOH’s intent is to minimize any exposure from both heavy metals to the maximum extent possible, thus we support the proposed cleanup plan. Any exposure to lead should be minimized to the extent possible. The most likely source of lead exposure for children in NYS is deteriorated lead-based paint in older, poorly maintained homes. The levels of lead in soil in the vicinity of the former foundry could result in an increased possibility for lead exposure, but any such exposure is likely to be small."

The State Department of Health warns that exposure to high levels of arsenic has been linked to multiple types of cancer in drinking water and can have negative effects on a person's nervous system.

The DOH also warns that elevated lead levels in children has been linked to harmful effects on a developing nervous system.

Last October 13WHAM first met the Helstrom family and three year old Jonah, who had tested for elevated levels of lead in his system.

"For a year, I was watching for lead in paint and watching ever toy recall. I couldn't figure what was going on," said Kara Helstrom.

In January, the Wiles family told 13WHAM they had no idea there were problems when they purchased a home in the area two years ago.

"Had I known that, I probably wouldn't have moved here," said Kelvin Wiles.

DEC Communications Director Sean Mahar told 13WHAM the reason it took so long for the state to take action fixing the problem is because in order to get state funding, it must prove the contamination is directly related to the former foundry site. Mahar said the technology to prove that definitively, wasn't available until 2015.

"That allowed us to do more detailed analysis of the actual soil contamination and do a more broad analysis throughout the community," said Mahar. "That gave the state the ability to go in and say this is related to the foundry emissions and now we can move forward with the cleanup."

Mahar could not comment on any potential notifications to people in the neighborhood.

SUNY Buffalo professor and expert on industrial pollution, Dr. Joseph Gardella Jr., told 13WHAM it was the City of Geneva's responsibility to notify people of this investigation.

"The results of these studies should have been reported to residents and property owners in writing immediately. As the city paid for studies, they too, instead of what appears to be a cover up, should have reported this to property owners. Delays in cleanup because of funding shortages are common. Delays in reporting data that MUST be shared with the property owner are unconscionable," said Gardella.

"It's like being in the dark and having a light turned on that shows what is really going on," said Wiles.

136 people in Geneva are now part of a lawsuit aimed at the state, the City of Geneva and Ontario County.

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