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Lawmakers hear about how Erie County is addressing lead in park playground equipment

WBFO file photo/Thomas O'Neil White

Erie County legislators heard Thursday morning from leaders of the Parks and Health Departments about the positive test results for lead in dozens of pieces of playground equipment in county parks.

Officials discussed how they're addressing it, while the Erie County Comptroller says he's "damn proud" for raising the issue, while brushing off suggestions his actions were more politically motivated.

Comptroller Stefan Mychajliw delivered remarks at the start of the Erie County Legislature's Health and Human Services Committee hearing, explaining that his wife expressed concern for the condition of playground equipment while taking one of their sons out to a county park earlier this summer. He went to explain his decision to acquire a lead testing kit from a local hardware store and conduct independent tests, which returned positive results for the presence of lead in playground equipment paint.

Mychajliw has used his social media platforms to raise issues about the quality of park facilities, from restrooms to playgrounds, and told lawmakers that upon the positive test result for lead in playground equipment paint, he contacted the Health Department.

"Then, when it was confirmed through an independent lab there was dangerous levels of lead paint across Erie County parks, we demanded the County Executive shut down playground equipment. He refused," said Mychajliw outside the hearing. "Weeks later, his own Parks Commissioner and Health Commissioner ignored the County Executive and did exactly what we said we should do. Those are facts."

The Comptroller added that the testing kits used for his own checks were paid for using money from his campaign fund.

Parks Commissioner Troy Schinzel, speaking to legislators, said the county conducted tests of roughly 180 to 200 pieces of equipment and got positive results for 66 pieces. The department's next steps, he explained, are to train some personnel in lead abatement and begin the removal of pieces identified as health hazards. Removals would be prioritized based on which are in more popular spots.

"If there's areas around where a majority of people go, we'd rank that as number one, obviously," Schinzel said. "If there's pieces in the woods or other secluded areas that are very rarely used, obviously that would rank lower."

Schinzel and Deputy Commissioner Greg Olma both stated to legislators that the abatement training would take place Friday and, according to Olma, would be completed in "a few hours."

Olma also explained to lawmakers how the Parks Department will preserve "legacy" pieces of park equipment, including the popular Cinderella Pumpkin Coach at Akron Falls Park. For pieces like that, according to Olma, the department is using a special coating to trap any lead dust which would then be covered by a new coat of paint.

During his testimony, Mychajliw pointed to a quote by Health Commissioner Gale Burstein that "no level is safe" for children when it comes to lead levels. Burstein also appeared before the committee and acknowledged that comment but also sought to put it in her intended context.

"Ultimately, while we want our parks equipment to be lead-safe, our primary concern continues to be deteriorated lead paint in the home," she said. "As I was quoted that there is no safe level of lead that comes from chronic exposure in the home, as the Comptroller has quoted, from what I had told WIVB (TV)."

At least two legislators - John Bruso and Howard Johnson - hinted in their lines of questioning that they wondered whether Mychajliw's concern for park equipment may be politically motivated. He has butted heads with County Executive Mark Poloncarz on numerous occasions and the latter seeks re-election this November. The Comptroller told reporters his concerns are both as a county official and as a father to young children who would play on park playground equipment.

"I'm damn proud that we brought this issue to the forefront and that it's getting resolved," he said.

Also raising questions about the Parks Department's cleanup approach Thursday was Legislator Lynne Dixon, Poloncarz's challenger this fall. She asked Schinzel if lead abatement was the department's top priority, a question to which he responded "yes." She then pointed to the recent cleanup of park facilities at Elma Meadows, where her opponent recently held a political gathering.

"If it is a number one priority, I still take issue with the fact that it was 'all hands on deck' at Elma Meadows to prepare a shelter and a golf course for the county executive's fundraiser this past Tuesday, when those workers could have been used to help block off the (playground) equipment, check the equipment, help move the equipment, whatever," Dixon said.

The Parks Commissioner responded, saying the notion his personnel were "all hands on deck" for that task is not true.

"It was not 'all hands on deck.' I'm not even sure what that exactly means," he replied. "Is that three, or 33 or 18? But it was not all hands on deck."

He followed by saying once lead abatement training is completed, there "will be more hands on deck" focusing on that effort.

Michael Mroziak is an experienced, award-winning reporter whose career includes work in broadcast and print media. When he joined the WBFO news staff in April 2015, it was a return to both the radio station and to Horizons Plaza.
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