Lead and arsenic from Geneva Foundry was found in soil of 55-acre plot and legal action is being pursued.

GENEVA — For the majority of their 3-year-old son’s life, Geneva city residents Jeff and Kara Helstrom searched for what was causing the elevated levels of lead in their little boy’s body.

The Ontario County Health Department told them it could be the paint in their home. The residence on Jackson Street in the city’s northeast side has been in Jeff’s family for decades.

They repainted the inside of their home, as Kara explored other possibilities that could explain the toxic chemical’s presence in Jonah’s bloodstream.

“The pediatrician assured me that it doesn’t necessarily mean that he’d have any problems. He could be fine,” Kara said. “We just wanted to monitor him and find the source of the lead.”

As time passed, Kara considered a story shared by her husband. He told of a relative who lived on their block who, after having his property’s soil professionally tested, was advised not to eat vegetables from his garden.

Then there was the operations of the former Geneva Foundry.

The Foundry, which burned and processed coal to melt and cast iron objects, operated on 2.5 acres of city land for more than a century. The plot where the facility sat is now vacant, and the property’s boundary is located a few dozen yards from the Helstroms’ front doorstep.

One of the family’s neighbors, 74-year-old Sue Rago, has lived in her home on Jackson Street her entire life. She remembers the smoke produced by the Foundry when it was in full swing.

Rago said that sometimes her mother would hang the wash to dry outside and the ash blasting through the Foundry’s smokestacks rained down on the neighborhood, forcing the items to be washed again.

Kara considered the fallout from the since-demolished Foundry, and turned to the soil that could have absorbed noxious chemicals from the factory’s operations. The Helstroms, parents of three children, have a backyard full of toys, including a hand-built ice rink. It’s a spot where Jonah has spent a lot time playing.

At first, the literature Kara dug into about the Foundry cast doubt on her thinking. But, as the Helstroms recently found out, her theory made sense.

In October, the state Department of Environmental Conservation notified property owners in the Helstroms' neighborhood that their soil had tested positive for lead and arsenic at levels that were considered unsafe.

Soil samples from years ago tested positive for increased levels of the metals, but only sampling of the soil concluded in late 2015 provided a clear link between the toxic chemicals found in the dirt and the factory, according to the DEC.

The uncovering of the soil contamination surrounding the former Foundry has also led to the discovery that the presence of harmful levels of lead and arsenic among the 55-acre plot of land may have been known for years by local officials.

Families living in an environment that has offered a slim yet real possibility of potential illness has led to the basis of legal action filed on behalf of nearly 140 Geneva city property owners, including the Helstroms.

Uncovering the truth

Members of the state Department of Environmental Conservation and the Department of Health held a public forum in the city of Geneva shortly after the tainted soil was revealed to residents last October.

According to a DEC fact sheet handed out during the event, ash particles were emitted from the Foundry’s smokestacks and settled on areas around the structure from 1868 to 1988 — when the Foundry went out of business.

The particles from the factory, once located at the now bare 43 Jackson St., are believed to have contained the toxic metals that contaminate the soil.

The representatives presented a proposed cleanup plan during the forum — a multi-year project estimated to cost around $16.25 million. The brownfield cleanup program includes digging out the contaminated soil, hauling it away and placing clean soil in its place.

During the gathering at the St. Francis de Sales Church, attendees were, in the meantime, urged to avoid unnecessary contact with potentially contaminated soil.

“These folks, living peacefully there in Geneva for all these years while arsenic and lead were sprinkled upon them by this Foundry, have been wronged,” said attorney Steven Ward Williams.

Williams has filed legal claims against the state, city of Geneva and Ontario County on behalf of the city residents.

“We’re bringing these claims and these lawsuits in an effort to right those wrongs,” the Syracuse-based lawyer said.

According to Williams, the state knew of the contamination of this area as early as the mid-1980s, while officials in the city of Geneva also knew about the contamination for years.

“They chose to to keep it a secret while at the same time collecting tax dollars from these people based on assessments of their property — assessments that did not take into consideration that these properties were contaminated with arsenic and lead,” he said.

The action includes claims filed against New York state, which are equivalent to lawsuits, Williams said.

In addition, notice of claims have been filed against both the city and county. The document places the city and the county on notice, giving the two municipalities the opportunity to investigate the allegations and potentially pay out a settlement.

“Sometimes municipalities choose not to investigate it,” Williams said. “If they don’t do anything, after a certain time I can file a suit in state Supreme Court, but we’re not there yet.”

In a sample claim Williams provided, it states that as far back as 1986, the contamination was made known by a resident who resided in the neighborhood near the Foundry.

It states that in mid-1987, Dr. John Hawley, of the Department of Health, wrote to DOH District Director Michael Linse informing him that lead was present in dangerous levels, based on a Cornell University analysis of soil samples from the parcel on Exchange Street. The claim also states that Hawley advised that the resident should be informed of the heightened levels and the possibility for lead exposure.

“Instead, Michael Linse advised the residents of 234 Exchange St. that ‘the results of the analysis confirmed that there is no significant health hazard associated with the consumption of edible plants grown in the garden’ and recommended only that the residents wash fruits and vegetables before eating them,” the sample claim states.

The claim further reads that soil samples were taken and reviewed again in the late 1990s and again after the factory was demolished in 2005.

Ontario County

Williams stressed that he has no documents that suggest that Ontario County was aware of the contamination at anytime prior to the story hitting the newsstands last October.

“I filed a claim against the county because I had to,” Williams said. “The time was running and we wanted to preserve some rights, but I may find that there’s no evidence against the county and tell them we’re not going to pursue it, or we may find that there’s evidence against the county and decide to pursue it vigorously.”

He added that he has been in communication with the Ontario County attorney, who has informed him he’s “barking up the wrong tree and that they didn’t know anything about this,” Williams said.

Michael Reinhardt, assistant county attorney for Ontario County, said on Wednesday that the notice of claims have been received and rejected. He did not directly acknowledge if the county was aware of the contamination. Reinhardt did state that in addition to the property mentioned in the claim paperwork not belonging to Ontario County, the notices of claim were late.

General Municipal Law requires they must be filed within the first 90 days after the claim arises.

“More than 90 days has elapsed since the incident occurred, in the county’s opinion,” Reinhardt said. “All the notice of claims that we have received — we’ve reviewed them and rejected them.”

Meanwhile, the state lawsuit has been filed and officials have 40 days to respond, which has not been done to date, according to Williams.

Williams added that he hasn't been contacted by city officials regarding the issue.

 

City of Geneva

Geneva City Manager Matt Horn stated by email late last week that the city is still in the process of reviewing the notice of claims.

Horn also released an informational handout that provided a detailed background of the Foundry's history and the ensuing cleanup process. According to the handout, the city had been in contact with state agencies about potentially contaminated soil for years, with questions lingering regarding the Foundry's impact on the neighborhood.

According to the handout, the city entered into the state’s Environmental Restoration Program in 1997 to access state funding to conduct an investigation of the abandoned Foundry property that, by that time, had fallen into disrepair.

In order to access funding, the city foreclosed on the property in 1998, at which time the ERP was pursued. Through the ERP the state reimburses municipalities for the costs to investigate and clean up municipality-owned contaminated properties with the goal of bringing the property back into productive use.

“The city had no authority nor obligation to act relative to any contamination on or off site before we took ownership of the property,” Horn states in the informational handout.

The former Foundry building was ultimately demolished in 2005, and an on-site investigation of the property's environmental standing was completed. From 2005 to 2008, samples were then collected in the neighboring community with the goal to establish if contaminants that were found offsite could be linked to the former Foundry.

According to Horn's handout, the city has consistently pressured the DEC to make a determination on the city's findings that suggested that there was no connection between the foundry and the samples.

"Our completed testing record, conclusions, and clean-up plan for on-site contamination were all provided to the state in 2007," Horn stated.

In early 2015, the city again provided a report to the DEC. This time, the city suggesting that the only property impacted by the Foundry was the Exchange Street property listed by the DOH nearly three decades before. Later that year, the DEC indicated that they did not agree with the city's conclusions and began conducting its own sampling in the neighborhood adjacent to the Foundry's location, according to Horn.

The sampling was completed in 2015, and the results are those released in October.  

Kevin Frazier, public information officer of the DEC, acknowledged in an email that previous soil sample tests indicated that the lead and arsenic were present at some off-site properties around the Foundry. He added that the DEC and DOH employees could not determine if the resulting levels could be attributed to the factory.

The sources of the contaminants could have been from other industries and land uses, he said.

"This localized contamination represents a baseline level of these contaminates and is referred to as 'urban background,'" Frazier stated in the email. "These urban background sources can result in lead and arsenic levels that are above DEC's residential soil cleanup objectives."

However, according to Frazier, it wasn't until 2015 that new technology became available that provided a clear linkage between the tainted soil and the Foundry.

Foundry fallout

Frazier stated in the email that the individual threats from exposure to lead and arsenic in Geneva are negligible.

“The most likely source of lead exposure for children in NYS (New York State) is deteriorated lead-based paint in older, poorly maintained homes,” Frazier stated. “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.”

Williams points out the possibility for health risks are still there.

“We know that exposure to those kinds of lead levels lead to certain diseases or conditions and we know a lot of people in that community have those issues,” he said.

The DOH website states that the health effects of arsenic depend on how much enters the body, how it enters the body, how long the person has been exposed, and other factors including the health status of the person who is exposed. Breathing or eating arsenic for an extended period of time can increase the risk for certain cancers.

As for lead, the DOH website lists a series of neurological health effects from lead exposure, including hearing loss and seizures; gastrointestinal effects, such as nausea and colic; reproductive effects, including miscarriages and reduced sperm count; and impacts on heart health.

Jonah, who was found with an elevated blood-lead level when he first tested at 1 year old, has since experienced developmental issues associated with speech, Kara said. According to the Mt. Washington Pediatric Hospital website, lead has the capacity to increase risk for cognitive problems. Those issues include poor speech articulation and delayed language.

“We’re just hoping for the best and trying to be positive,” Kara said. “But it is a thought in my mind. I worry about him a lot.”

As for Rago, when she told her doctor about the contaminated soil — soil that has helped yield vegetables and fruit she's eaten for years — she was informed to have her blood levels tested. Her tests came back normal.

“As far as I know, it hasn’t affected my health," she said.

Rago added that what's particularly troubling are the years of paying taxes on a property she deems worthless.

“If they had a problem on South Main Street where the college is, would they have waited all this time to tell everybody?” Rago said. “I feel they have no regard for us because we don’t live in an area where we are a big tax base.”

Other people new to the area have told Rago that they wouldn't have purchased the property in the area if they knew, including her daughter.

Jeff said he would have taken the presence of toxic chemicals into consideration when thinking about raising a family on Jackson Street.

“It would have been interesting information to know,” he said.

 

What's next

Based on the state’s conclusions, they have determined that the best path forward is for the state agencies to coordinate the cleanup, which will be funded through the use of state Superfund dollars.

The city passed the necessary resolution and submitted the Brownfield Cleanup Application on Nov. 11. The application is subject to a 30-day public comment period.

The application can then be approved and the cleanup agreement can be sent to the city for signature.

“The NYSDEC requested the city enter into the Brownfield Cleanup Program as a volunteer,” Horn stated. “The city is a volunteer because it did not cause the contamination and is merely the owner of the contaminated property.”

The city will pay $250,000 of the $16.25 million needed for the cleanup, with the remaining cost being the responsibility of the state.

There hasn’t been a timeline for the cleanup established to date. According to Horn’s email, the Geneva City Council is preparing to pass a resolution urging the state to expedite review of the Brownfield application, as well as approval of the off-site cleanup plan.

For the Helstroms, the sooner, the better.

“It’s been constantly on my mind,” Kara said. “The sooner it’s done, the sooner we can relax and know Jonah's safe.”