At Contaminated Brownfields Site, UB Chemistry Students Use Science to Clear the Air Between Residents and Government

Class works with residents of subdivision that has been called "another Love Canal"

Release Date: April 5, 2000 This content is archived.


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A door sign reflects the frustrations of Hickory Woods residents over the contaminated land their houses were built on, a problem that UB undergraduates are helping to unravel.

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Armed with small chemical sensors, knowledge of analytical chemistry techniques and serious dedication, undergraduate students in chemistry Professor Joseph A. Gardella's class at the University at Buffalo are on a mission: They are using science and communication skills to help bridge the gap between government and residents of a Buffalo subdivision that is a contaminated former brownfield.

The students are analyzing air and soil samples at Hickory Woods -- described as "another Love Canal" by environmental activist Lois Gibbs when she visited earlier this month -- and will communicate results to the residents. They accompany members of the Hickory Woods Concerned Homeowners Association to hearings and are helping residents interpret technical documents prepared by state and federal health and environmental agencies.

With funding from UB's Environment and Society Institute (ESI), Gardella and his chemistry classes have in recent years been working with communities, corporations and local government on public-service projects, employing the same analytical chemistry techniques used by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and other government agencies to effectively communicate with residents concerned about their environment.

"The model of communication and community input that we have developed shows how communities can get a handle on their environments, draw attention to potential environmental problems or get background data to help answer some of their questions," said Gardella, instructor of Chemistry 470, "Analytical Chemistry of Pollutants," in the UB College of Arts and Sciences.

"When we are invited by a community to come in, we ask what their concerns are, and then we design an analytical chemistry project that addresses those concerns that also can be completed in a semester."

Rick Ammerman, head of the homeowners association, noted: "We are looking to plug the holes in this whole process in order to have a more complete investigation of the area. There does seem to be a hole in the system, and UB's Environment and Society Institute is coming in and, hopefully, bridging that gap."

In 1998, Gardella's class worked with Buffalo's Seneca-Babcock neighborhood, where residents were concerned about emissions and odors from the Buffalo Color Corp. A year earlier, students analyzed soil samples from Stachowski Park, where neighbors were concerned about an adjacent undeveloped parcel of land that is a former municipal and industrial landfill.

Buffalo Color had not traditionally had good relations with the Seneca-Babcock residents.

After extensive meetings held with local residents and with officials at Buffalo Color, Gardella and his student-chemists distributed to residents badges with sensors to detect contaminants in the air, along with instructions about when and how to wear them. When the badges were returned to students and analyzed, none of the targeted contaminants were detected.

"The residents knew they had not been exposed because they collected the data themselves," Gardella said. "The upshot is that by working with both the company and with residents, we helped build a bridge between people in the community and the company. People's attitudes about the company have changed."

At Hickory Woods, though, the stakes are far higher, and could have implications for other brownfields sites throughout the U.S., according to Gardella.

The city-subsidized subdivision consists of about 60 homes built in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Constructed on an old LTV Steel site in south Buffalo, the Hickory Woods subdivision, with its market-rate homes and suburban-style properties, was hailed as a dramatically positive development for Buffalo.

"When you come to Hickory Woods, you think, 'This is great, this is what Buffalo should be doing in lots of places,'" Gardella said.

But in the late 1990s, during construction of a new home in the subdivision, developers discovered black coke wastes, refractory bricks and an oozing black substance in the soil. Sampling revealed levels of polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons, a carcinogen resulting from steel manufacturing -- some as high as 100,000 parts per million, when the allowable federal and state guideline is 15 ppm.

Development stopped and some families were temporarily relocated.

Homeowners were not informed about the contamination at the site before they purchased their homes.

Since then, some residents have complained of severe birth defects in children conceived and born to resident families, and of a high incidence of cancer.

Now, with soil sampling being done by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, residents will begin to have more information.

But, according to Ammerman, they believe that the results obtained by government agencies are not the last word. That's where the UB chemistry students come in.

"The Hickory Woods development was funded by federal and state dollars and administered by the City of Buffalo," said Ammerman, "so there is a mistrust, and a founded mistrust, on the part of residents of any function of government. When we're asked to believe something from government, we want to have some kind of check on them from someone who is completely disassociated from this. That is what we are getting from Gardella and his students at UB."

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