The politics of the 'plume'
After a few residents spoke about the groundwater contamination at last Monday’s Town Board meeting, talks turned to forming an advisory committee to be made up mostly of residents living in the mile-long “plume” site.
Supervisor Leslie Bamann said a Town Board member was needed to oversee the creation of that committee, and Richard Maltman, who lives in the plume, quickly volunteered.
In the audience, John Palomaki grimaced. Michael Crowley smiled.
Palomaki is one of two Democrats running against Republicans Maltman and Crowley on Nov. 6 for two Town Board seats. Bamann, a Republican, is also up for re-election, though she is uncontested.
If you ask Maltman, volunteering to help create the committee was nothing other than a sincere gesture: He said he wanted to show his support for his neighbors in the plume and help his counterparts on the Town Board by stepping up to the plate.
“I think my representation is important,” he said after the meeting. “Being that I am in the plume, I’m closer to it than probably any of the other board members.”
Maltman’s political rivals —Palomaki and running mate John Accorso — aren’t so convinced. They believe it was a moment of political opportunity.
“He’s trying to repair the damage that has been done, but it’s a little too late,” said Palomaki.
Accorso, who was at the meeting Monday but had stepped outside for a phone call when Maltman was tapped, said he thinks the the appointment was settled on by Maltman and other Town Board members before the meeting.
“You can’t prove these things, but my best guess would be that it was set up because (Maltman) is vulnerable on this issue,” he said.
Along with the town’s boom of commercial and residential development, the contamination between Modock Springs Road and Dryer Road is one of the top campaign issues in Victor.
The Democrats say the Republican-ruled Town Board — dating back 17 years ago when the contamination was discovered in Modock Springs — has not done enough to address the problem or help property owners who live in the area.
Those elected to the board since should have pressed the state to find the source of the contamination and made sure that all new residents in the area were aware of the problem, said Accorso.
“That party has been in power for the entire duration of all this,” he said. “I think it was their responsibility to do something about it, regardless of the players.”
By players, he means the various people elected to the Town Board over the years.
Maltman first joined the Town Board 16 years ago. In the days after the plume garnered headlines last March, he came under fire by a few of his neighbors who accused him of having turned a blind eye to the issue over the years.
At a fiery meeting attended by over 150 residents in late March, Dryer Road resident Michael Barry called for the resignation of Maltman, saying he essentially ignored the problem and never reached out in concern over the years even though he is a neighbor.
Maltman has maintained that he and other board members in the past several years felt that the contamination was a non-issue, since it was believed at the time to only be a health threat if the tainted groundwater was ingested and the village had stopped using the springs as its water source. He points out that homeowners in the plume whose wells were contaminated were given the opportunity to tie into the public water system.
He also points out something that has been highlighted by state officials in recent months: Only in the past few years have scientists learned that the toxin, called TCE, can also infiltrate the air in the form of vapors, putting people who live in contaminated areas at risk.
“Back then the problem was addressed,” Maltman said. Though he concedes that past boards “should have pressed” state officials harder for a cleanup, he said, “I think what was done at that time was appropriate.”
Barry spoke again at Monday night’s board meeting, before Maltman was appointed to spearhead the committee. Barry said the investigation into the affected area by the Department of Environmental Conservation ought to be expanded — something Maltman disagrees with.
“You have to believe some data at some point,” he said of the information culled so far by the DEC. “I don’t think you can just keep expanding it.”
Maltman points out that of 60-plus homes tested for either water or vapor contamination, only a handful have tested positive for toxins, including Barry’s. “It’s not Love Canal,” he said. “I know there’s genuine concern, and I’m concerned, but you have to deal with it as you can. You can’t tell everybody: ‘We’re going to put your assessment at zero and give you free water.’”
The remediation and investigation is being headed up by the state departments of environmental conservation and health. A state grant obtained by Sen. Michael Nozzolio, R-Fayette, has paid for the installation of several radon vents that alleviate the vapors in homes; Maltman has one of the vents.
The town has not set aside any money in its proposed 2008 budget for the contamination — something that frustrates Barry and some of his neighbors. Bamann and town officials like Financial Manager Michael Dollard maintain that it’s the state’s responsibility to foot the bill. Maltman went as far as to say: “We didn’t cause this problem — it’s not ours to solve.”
Accorso and Palomaki believe, however, that the town could do more to assist the plume residents, such as help pay for public-water hookups for those who have not yet tied into the public water system; the tie-in can costs thousands of dollars. They also feel that the town should lower property assessments in the plume — a move that town Assessor Wayne Pickering on Monday night said he is considering after reviewing other communities with similar contamination issues.
“We cannot tell him what to do,” Maltman said.
Though he feels more could be done, Palomaki credits Bamann with keeping pressure on state officials — she has made a few trips to Albany on the matter. “At least they acknowledge it, and they're getting the state’s help,” he said of Bamann as well as Town Board member Peter Hessney, a Republican who was elected on the Democratic line two years ago. “They are listening to the residents, which I think is important.”
Crowley, meanwhile, said the Town Board has reacted to the ordeal exactly as they should have.
“It is a very, very delicate issue,” he added. “I think the town has done a fantastic job with it.”