Councilman Darius Pridgen was well aware of toxic contaminants at 858 East Ferry Street, long before he developed the industrial site into market rate residential housing, located across the street from his ministry.
The Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) awarded a Technical Assistance Grant (TAG) for the amount of $50,000 to True Bethel Baptist Church. According to the DEC, “the grant helped the recipient understand existing environmental data on the site, comment on remedial proposals and activities, and share information with the public.”
Cancerous toxins and the vestiges of an industrial past
At the time it was being studied for remediation, the East Ferry Site — known locally as the Ferry Fields — was zoned industrial. It is a triangular shaped area situated on the north side of East Ferry Street. The site is bordered on the north by an elevated railroad embankment.
The Michael Heyman Company operated a zinc and lead smelting refinery at the property, before True Bethel Development, the Church’s development enterprise, built 30 residential units on top of one of the region’s most toxic waste sites. Lands adjacent to the smelting plant were used for the disposal of toxic ash, a byproduct of metal processing, evidenced by the presence of two distinct ash beds.
Two buildings were once located on the Heyman property: the west building was the foundry and blast furnace; and the east building, nearest the 858 East Ferry Street site, housed the metal casting facility. The central part of the East Ferry Street site was used as a dumping ground for the disposal of lead-contaminated ash.
Based on the results of this investigation, DEC issued a Record of Decision (ROD) in March 1999. The selected remedy included the excavation and off-site disposal of hazardous waste and contaminated soil. The ROD also stated that the remedy would be deferred until further investigation was conducted to the west of the site to define the extent of contamination.
In 2001 and 2004, DEC conducted off-site investigations and the results indicated that the contamination extended to the west beyond the TNT auto lot and into several other industrial and commercial properties. Based on the new data, the volume of contaminated soil was significantly larger than the volume estimated in the ROD. This new information prompted DEC to amend the 1999 ROD and establish more extensive clean up goals to enable unrestricted industrial/commercial use of the site consistent with then current zoning.
On November 23, 2004 and February 15, 2005, DEC officials held public meetings with neighborhood residents and stakeholders to present the results obtained from their investigation and to review remedial options. Based on the input from this meeting, the state proceeded with an amended remedy “based on the future planning proposed by the City of Buffalo.”
In that official 2005 Record of Decision, the DEC states plainly that, “the amended remedy will be protective of human health and the environment as long as the current zoning of these properties remain as industrial/commercial.”
In the official record of public comments in that ROD, the question was raised: “Do you have assurances from the City of Buffalo that they’ll keep the property zoned industrial as industrial and not build residential homes on industrial sites?”
The DEC’s response to that question was telling:
The NYS DEC received a letter from the City of Buffalo stating that the site will potentially be developed to a use that is most beneficial to the City and it’s residents. The NYS DEC will request that the City submit, on a periodic basis, a certification that will state that off-site properties, zoned as industrial/commercial will not be changed.
A full remediation of the site, which would have made it safely habitable by humans, would have cost $50 million. But DEC pursued a far less costly partial remediation that cost $9.5 million, based on the City of Buffalo’s ownership of the parcel and intention to retain its industrial zoning.
Mysteriously, in January 2011 at the request of the City of Buffalo Office of Strategic Planning (OSP), the Common Council authorized OSP “to designate Belmont Housing Resources of Western New York (“WNY”) and/or a Housing Development Corporation as redeveloper of the property located at 858 East Ferry Street.”
Pridgen did not recuse himself from that vote.
True Bethel Development then spent $6.6 million to build 30 market rate units on land not fit for human residence.