From November 2016 to August 2019, the City of Geneva paid over $799,000 to a Syracuse-based law firm to fight against city residents in court cases related to the Geneva Foundry environmental disaster.
The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation has reimbursed the City of Geneva for over $750,000 of those legal fees through Environmental Restoration Program (ERP) Grants. The DEC website says that the ERP grants are available to “clean up municipally-owned brownfield sites.”
Why is the City of Geneva insisting on fighting Foundry victims at a cost of nearly $800,000 when they could have agreed to a settlement with the victims years ago?
And why is the State Department of Environmental Conservation paying for lawyers to defend Matt Horn, Gordy Eddington, and the City of Geneva’s documented negligence and lies related to the decades-long Foundry cover up?
The Geneva Foundry Disaster
The presence of lead and arsenic in the soil in neighborhoods surrounding the Geneva 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, a report from the City of Geneva acknowledged the existence of widespread lead and arsenic contamination, and the associated health risks.
In 1999, Gordon Eddington became the City of Geneva’s Director of the Department of Public Works. Another report from the City of Geneva acknowledged the contamination and danger to residents, and soil testing of properties surrounding the former Foundry began.
In 2000, another report detailing the hazardous contamination was filed by the City.
Further soil testing was conducted at hundreds of properties in 2004, 2006, 2008, 2009 and 2015. Over 200 properties were found to have high levels of lead and arsenic contamination, with extremely high levels in some cases.
But the City of Geneva did not inform residents about the lead and arsenic contamination until October 2016, when the DEC announced a plan to clean up the contaminated properties.
Almost immediately, Geneva officials began denying responsibility and blaming the state for the failure to inform residents of the contamination for nearly 30 years. In April, City Council attempted to pass a resolution to prevent residents from criticizing city staff or elected officials during council meetings.
Throughout the first year after the Foundry contamination was made public, Eddington, now a City Councilor, lied again and again about his role in the cover up while being supported and defended by former City Manager Matt Horn and the entirety of City Council.
The Geneva Foundry Legal Claims
In January 2017, 136 Foundry-area residents filed notices of claim against the state, city and Ontario County over exposure to lead and arsenic from the Foundry.
By February 2017, the City of Geneva had paid Syracuse-area law firm Hancock Estabrook $25,266.83 for legal work related to the Foundry case, with payments to the firm starting in November 2016.
But beginning in May 2017, the City of Geneva would no longer be paying all of their attorney’s fees to fight the residents’ legal claims.
The City of Geneva began receiving almost full reimbursement for their Foundry-related legal fees from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, using grant money from the state’s Environmental Remediation Program (ERP).
By September 2019, the DEC had paid a staggering $750,684.35 of reimbursements to the City of Geneva for Foundry-related litigation, effectively paying 94% of the city’s attorney fees over that time frame.
The Hancock Estabrook attorney representing the City of Geneva for the Foundry litigation is Wendy Marsh of Geneva.
Why Is The State Using Environmental Cleanup Funds To Pay For The City’s Legal Defense?
According to legal sources, the “Environmental Remediation Program,” which falls under the Brownfield Cleanup Program, does provide reimbursement for legal claims against the recipient of the ERP funds (in this case, the recipient is the City of Geneva).
However, there is a limited amount of money in the state’s ERP funds, so any money that is spent on legal defense reduces the amount of money available for environmental cleanup projects.
How many more contaminated properties could have been remediated since 2017 with an additional $750,000 to spend on cleanup?
Geneva Believer has reached out to the State DEC and asked what the budget for legal fees would be in this case.
Why Didn’t The City Try To Reach A Settlement?
The lawsuit against the City of Geneva has been working its way through the court system for 33 long months, and could take months or even years to conclude. The City of Geneva could have negotiated a settlement in the case at any time in the past two and a half years, but instead has chosen to shell out hundreds of thousands of dollars to stay in court and keep fighting against the residents.
However, because the State of New York is generously providing almost the full amount of those legal fees, the City of Geneva has almost nothing to lose (except time and a few state taxpayer dollars).
The City of Geneva has already spent $750,000 of state money, along with $50,000 in city taxpayer funds, for legal defense, and the court case could drag on for a much longer period if it were to go to trial.
How much is the Department of Environmental Conservation willing to spend on this case? One million? Two million dollars?
While the Geneva City Manager provides a monthly Geneva Foundry update at every city council meeting, no one provides updates on Foundry-related court proceedings or estimates on how many hundreds of thousands of dollars have been spent to prevent Foundry-area residents from receiving justice.
Not only were Foundry-area residents kept in the dark for decades about high levels of toxic lead and arsenic in their yards, city officials also repeatedly lied to them after the contamination became public.
Now, for the final insult, the city has chosen to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars per year on lawyers to make sure those residents whose lives were upended by the Foundry disaster won’t gain any relief from the justice system, either.