Residents struggle with health impacts of polluted industrial site

Nov 30, 2012

A polluted industrial site in Watertown, cleaned up in the late 1990s, has been garnering renewed public interest, for all the wrong reasons. Several current and former residents of the neighborhood have stepped forward, claiming exposure to chemicals from the site has made them sick.

Andy Williams grew up on the north side of Watertown. He used to own his his construction business, employing 22 people. That was until one day about five years ago, when a hammer fell out of his hand. He couldn't pick it up. Then he started having mysterious leg cramps.

“I was having 300 to 400 charley horses (painful spasm) a day. My muscles were just tightening up and I was going to the hospital every day to get shot up with, you know, muscle relaxers and Valium and whatever. And it just got to the point where I wanted to kill myself.”

Illness forces business closure

Williams's health problems forced him to shut down his contracting business in 2008. Now, he says he's considered 100 percent disabled. Managing his condition has become his full-time job. He regularly goes to the Cleveland Clinic for treatment.

His old neighbor, Scott Barker, now lives in Ohio, and invited Williams to stay with him for one of those appointments. During the drive to Barker's house, Barker told Williams that he, too, was experiencing neurological problems.

“I was thinking in my mind what we had in common, and I turned to him: 'I wonder if it had anything to do with the creek in back of our house?'”

Old neighbors establish childhood connection to polluted site

As kids, the two had a fort next to the creek, playing in the water, catching tadpoles and even drinking from the creek. At the time, the waterway contained toxic chemicals. It was one of two creeks dredged by the state Department of Environmental Conservation as part of a larger cleanup of the New York Air Brake industrial site in the late 1990s. Polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, were found there, as was the industrial solvent trichloroethelyne, or TCE, which is known to cause neurological problems.

Peter Ouderkirk is an environmental engineer and the current project manager for the Air Brake site for the DEC.

“From the department's standpoint, from an environmental safety, environmental protection, we are fully confident that the remedies that were chosen and implemented have been successful and control, contain and manage all the waste that's on site.”

But Williams and Barker aren't sure the pollution is completely a thing of the past. Their illnesses certainly aren't.

So they created a Facebook group for people concerned about the pollution. A representative of famous environmental activist Erin Brockovich came to speak, questioning whether the DEC was providing enough information about the cleanup.

No ongoing risk says DEC

The DEC and the state Department of Health say there isn't an ongoing health risk. But the agencies can't speak to the issue of whether exposures before the cleanup might be responsible for people's sickness. Before 1980, it was still legal for companies to dump chemicals into the surrounding environment.

Other current and former north side residents have come forward at community meetings on the issue. Carol Molinari lives in Ogdensburg now, but she made Watertown her home for 35 years, and she had her children here. Two of her children suffer from a rare birth defect called craniosynostosis, which affects skull and brain growth.

“The chances of having two in one family were one in 850,000. And we have been genetically tested, and we don't have any of the known genes that cause cranio. It just makes me wonder if it's environmental.”

Families struggle with apparent pattern of birth defects

And Molinari says her kids aren't the only ones affected by that birth defect. She says six children who live or lived in the north side neighborhood were born with craniosynostosis.

“That's a pattern. It might not be from this. I don't know. But I would be foolish not to look into it.”

Molinari says she will submit a formal request to the state Department of Health to study disease patterns in the area.

Meanwhile, Erin Brockovich's firm, the Vititoe Law Group, has agreed to represent people who believe the pollution from the New York Air Brake site is responsible for their illnesses.

Editor's note: See also this report from North Country Public Radio's David Sommerstein on the cleanup and possible sale of GM's Massena property.