Text of Statement offered to Buffalo Common Council Hearing on Hickory Woods Environmental/Development Problems March 23, 2000
Good morning. My name is Joseph A. Gardella, Jr. I am a Professor of Chemistry and the Associate Dean for External Affairs in the College of Arts and Sciences at UB. I am a resident of Buffalo, for 18 years, save for the one year I worked in Washington for the National Science Foundation. I’ve appended a biographical sketch to the text of my statement for further background information, and details of my credentials and some of the programs I describe can be found at my website (http://www.acsu.buffalo.edu/~gardella).
For the last few years, I’ve worked with communities along the Buffalo River, leading a cooperative program at UB funded by the UB Environment and Society Institute and the Vice President for Public Service and Urban Affairs. The program I direct integrates the efforts of students doing public service learning in environmental chemical analysis with community needs. We’ve done a good deal of work in Seneca Babcock, the Valley and in Stachowski (Houghton) Park, where we have worked closely with Council member Fontana and the Seneca Babcock Good Neighbor Committee. In undertaking these projects, I try to serve as a to bring university resources to communities to help them assess and evaluate environmental issues in their neighborhoods. I interpret the term community broadly, it includes community groups like Hickory Woods, or Seneca Babcock, but also it includes industry, government and all participants in a region. Because of my background and experience in working with industry, I’ve worked closely with the WNY and national chemical industry on "Responsible Care" community outreach methods, which worked well in Seneca Babcock. I also serve as a Board member of the Green Gold Development Corporation, the now dormant Solid Waste Advisory Board (appointed by the Mayor), and a variety of Buffalo Public Schools environmental and special education committees. I think I have a solid knowledge of environmental issues in this community, from professional and personal experience.
For the past six weeks, I have been working closely with the Hickory Woods Homeowners’ Association to offer liaison to the University at Buffalo in three areas:
I’ve been meeting regularly with Hickory Woods community members since mid-January of this year. I’ve been in contact with EPA to help them with their community input into their sampling plan for the spring. I’ve served to bring a number of programs and ideas from Hickory Woods to UB to determine how best to provide public service from the ESI. I’ve read all the documents, reports and other information that the Hickory Woods homeowners have collected, many through New York State Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) requests.
Today, I would like to comment on what has been happening in Hickory Woods based on my experiences here and with other communities. I would note two key credentials that make my interest in and recommendations about the current problems at Hickory Woods of use to Council Members and the Mayor’s Office. First, I hold a Ph.D. in Analytical Chemistry and have done research and teaching in environmental chemical analysis for 25 years. My research interests are in the quantitative chemical analysis of surface processes. In particular, my expertise is in developing new methods to measure amounts of chemical elements and compounds at the surfaces of solids. My focus is on, among other things, the precision and accuracy of measurement methods, the use of statistics in analysis and other issues surrounding the details of measurements. That technical credential, along with experience is useful in designing and interpreting state of the art chemical analysis for environmental problems. Secondly, and perhaps of more importance, I have spent most of my career working on communicating science more broadly to the general public. My work on developing science curricula for non-science majors at UB was a major reason I was awarded the SUNY Chancellor’s medal for Excellence in Teaching in 1996. I take pride in my understanding and experience in explaining complex chemistry and environmental issues to the general public.
I used that background extensively in working as a communication bridge between industry and agency professionals and members of a community, and I think it has served me well in Seneca Babcock. I also think it gives me some insight into the current situation with Hickory Woods.
The history of the problems at Hickory Woods is fraught with poor communication between the City and the residents. I think it is fair to say that many of the residents are concerned for their health. Also, most are concerned that the property values and control over their lives are at best, completely disrupted, at worst, lost, as the City struggles to define the scope of the problem and define a solution and a path to reaching it.
Frankly, I have been most upset about the lack of clear and consistent communication between the Mayor’s office and the residents of Hickory Woods. Council President Pitts, Council Member Martino, other interested and concerned Council members, state government and (even) the EPA have been more forthright and conscientious about working with the community. The Citizen’s Environmental Coalition stands out among many other statewide and national environmental groups in providing sound council for the residents. But this is not enough.
I would like to focus on three recommendations for the City, and hope Council can effect the outcomes these recommendations are meant to deal with.
Let me magnify on each of these recommendations.
I am sure there are many in city government who have a mixed opinions of the development and direction of citizen action in Hickory Woods. My experience in working with communities has shown that citizens’ worst-case-scenario concerns about health and property values are exacerbated by the practice of trying to stonewall and protect information from people. Whatever the intentions, this just appears to be an attempt to maintain a position defined by someone’s opinion of what is legal, rather than doing what is right for the residents. In many cases in the past, industry has attempted to preserve profitability by using lawyers and legal strategies to define minimum responsibilities. Industries have realized that this strategy is not profitable. The Chemical Manufacturers Association has implemented a strategy of citizen involvement and open discussion with communities through their Responsible Careä program. It’s not perfect, by any means, but it is the product of a realization that informed citizens are best able to discuss, compromise and make decisions about the issues surrounding community/industry areas.
Brownfields and Superfund sites neighbor residential areas all across the country. In these cases, it will be government’s responsibility to develop communication with impacted residents.
Some have called Hickory Wood’s Buffalo’s Love Canal. Much has changed since then, including Superfund, but let me tell you what has not changed much since Love Canal. At the time Department of Health had little experience in dealing with organized citizen groups. It has not changed much in 20 years. The style of "discussion" with citizens is marked by a panel of experts sitting behind a long table, lecturing to citizens in the back of a room, using dizzying technical jargon without any attempts to explain it. What this does is create mistrust, and exacerbates the lack of understanding. What is needed is a clear recognition of what people do and do not understand and what people do not trust. The only way to do this is to engage in regular dialogue. Lack of effective and respectful dialogue with communities leads to complete mistrust in scientific conclusions. It is easy to point to examples such as people’s mistrust of the conclusions from statistics of small health studies that show that no cancer clusters are in neighborhoods where everyone knows someone with health problems and cancer. Similarly, here, how do we trust the conclusions of "relative safety" of soil analysis when the track record is poor on previous studies. There are real legitimate questions about the soil work and conclusions from even the best work, and no one from the City is working with citizens to answer those questions.
FOIL requests have to be made to obtain data produced by elected government. That’s not right. People were moved out for the remediation work last summer without seeing the data that caused concern. No one from City Government explained this data to the community. It takes more than preparing a statement for a hearing. It takes hands on work to explain and answer people’s questions. I am willing to do this as a University public service. But I should be doing it side by side with a representative of BURA or the City’s Office for the Environment, who is charged with listening and answering people’s questions. I make two specific recommendations here.
The Mayor’s Office should have someone available for every meeting of Hickory Wood’s Homeowners Association. This person should be a resource to answer questions. A defensive posture or an approach to avoid issues should be the last thing on this person’s mind. If trust is to be built at this late date, it is done by open communication. The residents know that not every question can be answered immediately. My experience in working with these communities have taught me that people are quite sophisticated about public policies. For example, people now recognize, in the wake of Love Canal, that closing down polluting industries which employ us has long term negative implications. They have come to realize that improving industries to make the pollution free and profitable is the best benefit to our community, most here realize that re-developing South Buffalo for industry will have a great benefit to our community. The people of Hickory Woods are South Buffalo residents with a strong commitment to this city. They should be respected as such.
The Mayor’s Office should form a liaison committee for every planning process that includes citizen participation from Hickory Woods. Members of the Homeowners Association heard about the LTV settlement by reading about it in the Buffalo News. They, at least through the Association representatives, should have been part of the discussion at all times. They should have known, and should know, what the potential uses of those funds are towards cleanup. Presently, rumors are rife about actions to be initiated on Monday March 27th to begin work on houses and lots with the funds from LTV. I don’t know if the rumors are true, but I know they exist. If they are true, it runs counter to the Mayor’s statement that he is trying to get the facts before acting. Besides the City getting the facts, I would suggest that a priority would be to get those facts to the people in the neighborhood and make them part of any planning about work done anywhere in the neighborhood. I urge the DEC to make them part of the planning for any work that occurs on the contaminated berm and superfund site. Please don’t answer that liability and concerns about citizens and privacy cannot be dealt with. Models exist for community advisory work and community planning in industry. If they can make it work, so can we.
The operative approach in dealing with this problem should be resident centered, rather than development centered. I urge the Mayor to immediately form a working group whose charge is communication with the residents, rather than avoidance of them. The motto for this work should be to put the residents in this area first. It’s an example of an old song I like to remember. "Before you accuse, criticize or abuse, walk a mile in my shoes". Think first of what is must be like to live in this area, with the uncertainties.
I now turn to the recommendations of the EMC. There were a number of recommendations made by the EMC to the Mayor in a letter following a meeting that included Hickory Woods Association membership. Many of those recommendations used the problems at Hickory Woods to illuminate long-standing problems in the City’s environmental policies and practice. Some recommendations dealt with issues related to relocation of those who want that and restitution for lost property values. In the following comments, I will only focus on two of the recommendations related to underlying practices and policies that I feel led to some of the problems. I do support all the recommendations.
One of the most important recommendations has to do with setting and keeping environmental standards for the City’s Development. It is clear to everyone, especially the residents, that development in Hickory Woods was undertaken in the late 1980’s and even early 1990’s without appropriate site evaluations, and perhaps even with substandard evaluations when they were first done. The EMC has recommended that standards for environmental contractors be developed and utilized. Frankly, there are numerous high quality environmental consulting companies in this area because of our history. They are staffed with excellent engineers, chemists and people expert in outreach and communication. Avoiding cost in doing environmental assessments and testing can only lead to problems. I wonder how many events like this one will it take to remind people of that saying from the oil filter commercial. "You can pay me now, or pay me later". Avoiding costs in the early stages of development by trying to minimize costs, especially next to a Superfund site is foolish gambling. But, in order to do a good job, standards have to be set. Then, they have to be followed to the letter and beyond. I hope City will hold BURA, BERC and other shadow governments to standards of environmental assessment and quality assurance for contractors. Standards for expectation need to be developed implemented immediately. This is no different than bid specifications for any job. Low bid environmental work will get you what you pay for. And in this case, it has gotten more costs than it has avoided.
A second recommendation of the EMC was to staff the City’s Office of the Environment at a level appropriate with the jobs that have to be done. It’s not even close to what is needed. Jim Smith and others in the Office labor with an overwhelming task, and when events like Hickory Woods happen, they are on the front lines taking the heat for decisions made by others. I’ve worked closely with this office and find those working there committed to the city and to the environment. They are excellent people with intellects and experience, some of the best in the business. People like Richard Stanton are true leaders in their field and want to do the best for the citizens and the government. They are overwhelmed and often buffeted around by development and political interests. I believe that Jim Smith and others are taking the heat for decisions and actions that others take. If the City is to recognize that environmental problems and issues are part and parcel of our everyday existence in this area, then providing staffing and a reporting relationship that gives the Office appropriate freedom and power is needed immediately. The Mayor can make these changes now. This would be a powerful statement about Hickory Woods and benefit the city for the future.
Finally, it’s time for the City to work on opening up the files on this case to the citizens. A number of means exist to do this fairly. But selectively responding to people’s requests and then forcing them to use FOIL mechanisms to learn about decisions by government makes things worse. A friend of mine from City Government told me recently that when she hears of conspiracies or cover-ups in City Hall, she wants to tell them that City Hall is not organized enough to have conspiracies or cover-ups. I think much can be gained by immediately assessing the information available with community representatives and then taking a posture that no action will be taken unless the Homeowners are notified and understand why an action is taking place. Again, if something is contemplated for March 27th, without notification or explanation to the citizens, it should be cancelled or postponed.
I am planning to work closely with EPA and the citizens to help plan the sampling which will be done in the neighborhood. Most know that students from my class will be doing sampling in the neighborhood for the next few months. We do this by designing our actions with the community, implementing all the knowledge that they have about their land and houses and neighbors into a sampling plan they understand. EPA can do this also. The very process of citizen planning and involvement improves the result in that the citizens understand from the beginning, instead of having to explain it after the fact.
I pledge to work with the City, the community and whatever government agencies, consultants and industries which are involved in this problem. I believe that there is a strong will of many faculty at UB to provide additional support services. We hope to analyze the history of this problem for our own use in developing better outreach and communication for the future. I am willing to serve as a liaison to the University for that effort.
When I first visited Abby Street in 1995, I thought that this was a wonderful neighborhood. Now I have had the opportunity to meet and work with the residents and they are a wonderful group of people. The goal of the development is a laudable one. You’ve got city workers, police, military veterans, people committed to the city and building a strong neighborhood. This approach needs to work. Let’s look at the mistakes in communication and solve them now. Thank you for your attention.