The most important local story in decades, reported on the front page of the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle on November 13th, has created waves of concern and anger in Geneva, and was even newsworthy enough to have been reported nationally by the Associated Press.
An investigation by D&C reporter Steve Orr uncovered the fact that unsafe levels of lead contamination were discovered as early as 1987 in the soil at hundreds of properties surrounding the old Geneva Foundry site, and that the information was kept secret from residents by both state officials and the City of Geneva. Generations of children grew up playing on lead and arsenic-tainted soil, residents grew gardens and ate the potentially toxic harvests, and citizens and homeowners unknowingly worked, played and lived on land that was environmentally unsafe. The danger was known, and those residents weren’t warned.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the health effects of lead are:
Even low levels of lead in the blood of children can result in:
- Behavior and learning problems
- Lower IQ and Hyperactivity
- Slowed growth
- Hearing Problems
- Reduced growth of the fetus
- Premature birth
- Cardiovascular effects, increased blood pressure and incidence of hypertension
- Decreased kidney function
- Reproductive problems (in both men and women)
Let’s examine how the initial story of the contamination was handled, how the investigation by the Rochester D&C dramatically changed that story, and what the cover-up reveals about our government in relation to social class and race.
Geneva Foundry Cleanup Plan Announced
- On October 10th, the Finger Lakes Times reported that the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation announced that soil in parts of the City’s 5th and 6th Wards would be part of a cleanup plan due to contamination from the old Geneva Foundry, which operated on Jackson Street for 120 years (1868-1988). The remediation efforts would focus on a 55-acre area surrounding the old Foundry site. Residents were advised to avoid contact with exposed soil, and public meetings were scheduled for October 18th and October 25th.
- At the October 18th meeting, the Finger Lakes Times reported that DEC project manager Frank Sowers, when asked why residents hadn’t been informed earlier about the dangers, stated that officials weren’t able to accurately pinpoint the source of the lead and arsenic until more recent advances in technology. Residents who wanted the results from a 2008 soil testing were told that they would need to file a Freedom of Information request. The remediation effort, which involves removing and replacing around 1 foot of soil on approximately 220 properties, will take years to complete, and will cost around $16 million of state Brownfield Cleanup Program funds.
- The October 25th meeting drew around 60 residents, many of whom were frustrated, worried and upset. Those residents received test results that showed levels of lead as high as 1,940 parts per million (the “safe” level is 400 parts per million) and arsenic levels as high as 39.2 parts per million (“safe” level being 16 parts per million). Some residents attended because they lived in the remediation zone, but hadn’t had their soil tested.
- An October 29th Finger Lakes Times article entitled “LEAD & ARSENIC: Explaining the concerns with Geneva Foundry Soil Contamination” provided an overview of information provided by the DOH, DEC and other sources regarding the potential dangers of lead and arsenic, and the cleanup effort.
While residents were still reeling from the news of the lead and arsenic contamination and pending cleanup effort, an investigative report by Steve Orr dominated the front page of the Sunday November 13th Rochester Democrat and Chronicle: “Lead tainting Geneva’s soil kept hidden for 30 years.” The stunning and painstakingly researched article revealed the following:
- The presence of lead and arsenic in the soil in neighborhoods surrounding the foundry first came to the attention of regulators in the spring of 1986. In July 1987, Dr. John Hawley, the state environmental health expert, wrote an internal memo, which was received by top officials in Albany, in which he warned of “highly elevated” concentrations of lead in Geneva’s soils, recommended more testing due to the potential dangers to residents (especially children), and recommended that residents with children or gardens be warned of the danger. State Health officials stated that they “believed” residents were warned back in 1987, but have no proof, and no current residents could be found who can remember being warned.
- In 1998, as the city took steps to acquire the old Foundry property, the City of Geneva hired consultants to testing on the Foundry site. Additional testing was done on 17 off-site properties, all were found to have high levels of lead and arsenic, and the consultants recommended that the soil be removed. The report was presented to the DEC and the city in 2000, and the state agreed to assist with funding to demolish the old Foundry in 2005. Residents were not informed of the test results.
- In 2005 and 2006, soil from the surrounding neighborhoods of the Foundry demolition was again tested. Residents were not informed of the test results.
- The state did more soil testing in the surrounding neighborhoods beginning in 2008 until 2015. Residents were not informed of the test results from 2008, and the first time they were notified of lead contamination was when they were given the 2015 test results in October of this year.
- Current city councilors have been told not to speak about the issue, and city officials did not return requests for comment.
- One resident of the remediation area stated that one of her children had been tested and found to have high levels of lead.
- One expert stated that it was “shocking” and “unconscionable” that residents were not informed of the dangers. Another called it “outrageous” and a “violation of every practice I’ve seen,” while another questioned the DEC’s claim that the levels weren’t high enough to cause alarm, stating “If anybody says, ‘Oh, we didn’t know it was that much of a problem,’ that’s just not true.”
There is much more to learn by reading this important and informative article, and I urge you to visit this link and read the entire piece.
How (And Why) Did It Happen?
In a recent discussion about the cover-up, a fellow Genevan said to me, “this whole mess wouldn’t have occurred if they found the contamination over on Washington Street.”
The above image shows four census tracts in Geneva, along with the annual average income and percentage of nonwhite residents in each tract. Of course, this information is unsurprising to most city residents, and economic segregation is not a Geneva-only issue.
Still, it must be noted that the tract with the city’s lowest annual income level and second-highest population of nonwhite residents is where the lead contamination was found and subsequently hidden from the residents who lived (and still live) there.
The condition of housing stock and the average income of residents are closely linked. The above image shows the condition of properties as rated in field studies by consultants hired by the City of Geneva (with green signifying “best condition”). Within the contamination area, the properties are primarily rated in the lower two rankings, with some at the mid-range level and only a tiny fraction of “green” properties affected.
Low-income residents lack the economic and political power to protect themselves from hazardous living conditions, whether by fighting against environmental dangers or by moving away from the affected area. The possibility that officials endangered the health of residents because the impacted neighborhoods were of a lower economic status is very real and appalling.
According to ejnet.org, “Environmental racism is the disproportionate impact of environmental hazards on people of color.” Wikipedia defines environmental racism as “a type of discrimination where people of low-income or minority communities are forced to live in close proximity of environmentally hazardous or degraded environments, such as toxic waste, pollution and urban decay.“
As illustrated in the above image, there is a larger-than-average number of nonwhite residents living within the lead contamination area, notably among those who identify as Hispanic/Latinx. The percentages shown are derived from 2010 census numbers, and reflect the populations living on each city block.
While some blocks are only partly within the contamination zone, the demographics are still striking. The average percentages of nonwhite and Hispanic/Latinx populations on the fifteen affected blocks with at least 5 residents are as follows:
50.6% Nonwhite (22.7% citywide)
31.4% Hispanic/Latinx (13.2% citywide)
Generally speaking, environmental racism is usually considered when the population of an affected area has a majority of nonwhite residents. However, the approximate population of the lead contamination zone in Geneva is more than double the city average for nonwhite residents, and almost 2 1/2 times the city average for Hispanic/Latinx residents. Two of the blocks closest to the contamination zone are nearly 50% Hispanic/Latinx, and one block has a total of five residents, all Hispanic/Latinx.
Whether intended or not, the decision to hide information about lead contamination has had a disproportionate impact on people of color in Geneva.
Saying Nothing Is Saying Too Much
Clearly, the aftermath of the 30-year cover-up will have a significant impact on the City of Geneva. Undoubtedly, there will be lawsuits on behalf of affected residents and the state and city will deal with the consequences of their dangerous and irresponsible actions over the last three decades.
Still, the lack of any public statements by city officials, and the instructions given to City Councilors to refrain from commenting, is causing even more damage to the public trust.
Those who live in the contamination zone are our neighbors, our friends, and our family. They are men, women and children who are a part of our lives, our schools, our churches, our neighborhoods and our community. They entrusted our elected and appointed officials to operate in a transparent and honest fashion, and to warn them if the health of their children and loved ones were in immediate danger. They are Geneva and WE are Geneva. We ALL live in the shadow of the Geneva Foundry and ALL of our lives have been impacted by the poisoned yards and gardens it left behind.
Answering the fear, the anger, and the concern of the community with a heartless “no comment” is the worst possible response to our community’s crisis. When city officials choose to lawyer up and clam up, rather than to end the 30-year history of deception with open and honest replies, they send the message that they weren’t standing by us and protecting our interests for the past three decades, and they sure as hell aren’t going to stand by us now.
This has been the most difficult and heartrending piece I’ve ever written on this blog. I’m searching for way to finish this story with a positive spin or a suggestion on how we can move forward, together, through this crisis. We trusted that our state and city officials would protect us and our families from toxic dangers that were literally hidden in our backyards, and they did not. They’ve been asked to respond, and they will not. People have very possibly suffered permanent health problems due to the cover-up. It’s painful and sad.
It seems the best (and perhaps only) course of action for us, the people of Geneva, is to stick together, support each other and put as much pressure as possible on the city and the state to make this right. If that means reaching outside of Geneva for some help, so be it. Those in power must be held accountable, and we must make sure that our neighbors, many of whom are some of our most vulnerable citizens, aren’t pushed aside or left to wonder about the health of their loved ones and what could have been done.
And if there’s any community in the world that can come together and find a way through this mess, it’s Geneva, right?