Tonawanda News

April 28, 2013

Love Canal suit tied to 2011 sewer work

By Mark Scheer
The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — A 2011 sewer line project that raised concerns about Love Canal-era contamination in Lasalle has prompted a lawsuit seeking damages for “grievously injured” residents of the Niagara Falls neighborhood. 

A complaint filed April 18 in State Supreme Court in Niagara County alleges that various parties involved in the project – including the Niagara Falls Water Board and the city itself — were negligent in the handling of the work at the intersection of Colvin Boulevard and 96th Street.

As a result, the complaint claims work crews “recklessly, negligently and/or carelessly disturbed, exposed, and discharged a substantial amount of contaminated sediment.” The claim suggests the work discharged a “myriad of hazardous chemicals” onto and into the property and homes of plaintiffs living in the surrounding neighborhood. 

The lead plaintiffs are identified as Falls resident Lisa Pierini and her two children. The claim was filed on the Pierini family’s behalf by the New York City law firm, Phillips & Paolicelli, LLP. 

Lisa Pierini declined comment when reached by telephone this week. The Phillips & Paolicelli law firm also did not respond to telephone calls seeking comment this week. 

The legal filing references the discovery of a chemical compound by contractors who were assigned to the sewer line project. It also details the checkered history of the Love Canal property and the clay-capped landfill designed to contain the nearly 22,000 tons of toxic waste dumped on the site from 1942 to 1953 by Hooker Chemical Co., the predecessor to Occidental Chemical. 

The lawsuit maintains that Love Canal toxins should not have been present in the sewer lines in the first place by virtue of remediation and containment actions tied to the site. It also suggests the defendants “failed to exercise due care to prevent the possibility of the escape of such chemicals.”

The plaintiffs are seeking compensation from the courts for the physical, mental and economic hardships they have endured as a result of the “dangerous” toxins being “continuously dispersed onto and into” their homes following the Jan. 11 incident as well as the toxins that have been “chronically and silently leaching” onto their properties for years. 

Crews broke into a clay pipe that sits about 25-feet below the road surface at the time of the original incident. Days later, a representative from Scott Lawn Yard, one of the contractors hired by the water board, said a compound released from a pipe near the intersection produced an odor which could be smelled blocks away from the site of the excavation. At the time, state environmental officials said there was no immediate threat to residents living in the neighborhood. 

The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation investigated the leak, acknowledging that a “black substance” found in the sewer bedding had a sewage or chemical odor and samples showed high levels of volatile organic compounds. 

In February 2011, the DEC released a draft report on the findings of its investigation, determining that the chemical found was “isolated” in nature and was likely there before containment systems were installed at the nearby Love Canal facility. The analysis performed by a contractor hired by the DEC found chlorobenzene chemicals, consistent with those found at Love Canal, were present at the site, but that they did not migrate off the containment area and “remained contained within an isolated pocket in a low-lying section of pipe buried with restrictive clay soils beneath the road’s surface.” 

Following the release of the report, the DEC found the contamination had been adequately addressed and did not pose any risk to human health or the environment. 

“Samples collected after remediation work was completed at this location confirm that the chlorobenzenes in the excavation have been found to be reduced and are at minimal levels,” the report noted. 

Niagara Falls Corporation Counsel Craig Johnson said his office has not yet been served the complaint and declined further comment on the Pierini matter. 

Johnson did confirm that the city has been inundated in the past few months with notices of claim filed predominantly by Love Canal area residents. Notices of claim are required before any individual can file a formal claim against the city. 

Johnson said the city’s law department has received in excess of 700 notices of claim tied to Love Canal, with the bulk of them generated out of the law office of Phillips & Paolicelli.  

“The nature of the claims that have been filed have all been pretty generic,” Johnson said. 

Love Canal drew nationwide attention back in the early 1970s when residents began complaining about the presence of chemicals leaching into their homes and the old 93rd Street Elementary School. Exposure to the chemicals prompted health concerns among Love Canal residents and led to the declaration of a federal state of emergency in 1978 by President Jimmy Carter.

In the years that followed, more than 950 families were relocated from the neighborhood and 350 homes were demolished. In 1990, the Love Canal Revitalization Agency renamed the neighborhood Black Creek Village as part of an effort to resettle the area. The plaintiff’s attorneys say about 260 homes were sold in the neighborhood since.