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Investigative Post: Stalled cleanup of former GM plant has residents frustrated

A map showing the area of the Delavan-Grider neighborhood where toxic chemicals still reside underground.

Residents of the Delavan-Grider neighborhood are fed up with the stalled cleanup of the former General Motors plant on East Delavan Avenue. Underground the plant are toxic chemicals that may be impacting the neighborhood and the already badly-polluted Scajaquada Creek. Neighbors want the state to end its tug of war with the property’s owner and fix the problem.

Virginia Golden can see the defunct General Motors plant from her front porch. The sight makes her angry and worried.

"I say we’ve been dehumanized, disrespected and we have no value," Golden said.

It’s the chemicals beneath several acres of this sprawling facility on East Delavan Avenue that have Golden and her neighbors on edge. They’re called PCBs, so toxic the federal government banned them in 1979. PCBs can cause serious health problems including liver disease, high blood pressure and even cancer.

Because of the PCB problem, the state Department of Environmental Conservation deemed several acres of the site a significant risk to public health. That was a decade ago. The state is still embroiled in a tug of war with the property’s current owner over how to remediate.

Golden and her neighbors are stuck in the middle. More than 25,000 people live within a mile of the plant. Almost all of them are African American.

"We have nowhere to go. We’re poor people," Golden said.

For seven decades, General Motors made cars at the factory. None of neighbors knew at the time that some of the property was contaminated. GM stored oil, laced with PCBs, in pits and trenches that leaked underground.

There is a good reason PCBs are banned. They don’t break down, even under extremely high temperatures. That made them useful for manufacturing, but terrible for the environment.

American Axle occupied the sprawling facility in 1994. They continued building car parts for GM until East Delavan Properties bought it in 2008. The property was a slippery mess.

"You had these hundred-year-old production facilities that were essentially covered in cutting oil," said Jon Williams of East Delavan Properties, the current owner.

Williams said he thought GM, the former owner, would take charge of the cleanup. After all, in 2006, GM had agreed to do the work. Three years later, GM went bankrupt. In 2012, the company agreed to pay the state $2.8 million, less than one-third of the estimated cost of the cleanup. As a result, GM was off the hook.

The plant is slowly coming back to life. Williams has located his manufacturing businesses here and recruited several other firms. In time, he said the old auto plant could be a major employer in a neighborhood hungry for jobs.

But first there is the job of cleaning up the contamination. The state says Williams’ company is responsible for the cleanup and hasn’t done enough to monitor and manage the contamination.

"I mean, I disagree with that. That’s all I can tell you," said Williams.

Williams said East Delavan Properties is willing to clean up the land, but on his own terms. And he doesn’t want to be held legally responsible for the remediation.

"EDP didn’t create this contamination. It didn’t abandon the site. GM did and, by extension, New York State," he added.

"This is a Class 2 site, which means it represents a significant threat to public health and the environment," said Martin Brand, DEC’s deputy commissioner.

"We understand that East Delavan Properties bought this property when GM was starting to go into the bankruptcy, but they did have their eyes open when they bought it and they knew what they were buying."

The PCBs at the plant present health concerns beyond the immediate neighborhood. They have seeped into a sewer line that feeds into Scajaquada Creek, which is already badly polluted with sewage. Tests have shown sections of the creek contain PCBs at levels that endanger fish and wildlife and which pose a risk to people.

Heavy rainfall can also cause sewer water from a manhole behind the plant to gush like a geyser. That runoff flows toward neighborhood streets.

A 2009 study prepared for GM concluded the impact to the creek was negligible. But the state says a more robust investigation is necessary.

Jill Jedlicka, executive director of Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper, said the chemical contamination problem must get resolved.

“PCBs are of particular interest just because they are so toxic in the natural environment and they are a risk to human health," Jedlicka said.

Back in the neighborhood, residents have grown impatient. Gregory Glover lives behind the plant. As a kid he would jump the facility’s fence to play football on an open field. He wants the stalemate to end.

"Clean the land up. No more talking. No more meeting. Just clean the land up."

Dan Telvock covers the environment for Investigative Post.