Mystery homes, contamination cost taxpayers millions

HOLLEY, N.Y. (WIVB) – In this News 4 special report,  News 4 Investigates found taxpayers are paying the price for chemical contamination and abandoned homes in the Village of Holley.

On a quiet street, in the middle of what looks like a normal neighborhood, neighbors shake their heads in frustration. Don Requa counts eight vacant homes within two blocks.

MORE | Take a video or photo tour of the neighborhood by clicking here

You’ll spot them, if you stand on the street and look closely. Families abandoned the homes twelve years ago. Since then, they’ve only been touched by time. Requa questions whether there was ever an issue with the homes.  He lived in the neighborhood when the trouble started in 2002.

The release

On January 5, 2002, a tank ruptured at Diaz Chemical releasing a smelly substance into the air. Drops covered cars and nearby homes; at the time, no one knew what it was. Scientists later confirmed the drops were 2-chloro-6-flurophenol (CFP).

LINK: Read more about the release here

Requa’s friends were among fourteen families who packed up and left. Some complained of sore throats and eye irritation. Others stayed. “None of them are sick,” Requa points out.

Jason Siebert moved in after the release. We asks, “Do you think it was ever really that dangerous?” Siebert says, “My dad is a volunteer fireman. I don’t think it was that dangerous. What did they say, eye irritants and the odor?”

Initially, Diaz Chemical paid to put the families up in a hotel, but the company ran out of money after a few months, and the EPA stepped in.

EPA takes over

“Many of the people said, much to do about nothing,” EPA spokesperson Mike Basile recalls. He’s spent twelve years dealing with the mess.

To date, the EPA has spent $11 million in Holley. Some of that money paid to buy out eight families and relocate them. Basile remembers the uncertainty; “We were dealing with an unknown.” Scientists didn’t know whether the homes were safe. “We were literally pulling our hair out.” The buyout was the simple solution.

“We relocated them because of the inconvenience we had put them through from 2002 through 2005,” Basile says.

What happened to the houses?

Eight homes sat empty for twelve years. The EPA has owned them since 2005. News 4 Investigates uncovered the government has paid a contractor $400,000 over the course of eight years to maintain the homes.

“We put alarms on the homes; we put electricity and heat on in the homes [and have] done minor repairs,” Basile confirms. Crews have also mowed the grass and shoveled snow at the properties.

News 4 Investigates found out a government contractor is also supposed to be plowing the snow at the homes. We returned during a snowfall to inspect the properties and found sidewalks barely visible. Neighbors told us crews are only required to plow a small section near the front of the homes.

Requa wonders, “What’s the sense in even shoveling it? Why are we paying?”

Up for sale?

After years in limbo, the government is finally ready to sell the homes. Mayor John Kenney in Holley can’t wait for that to happen. “Get them on the market; let people buy them, and then, get them back on our assessed value,” Mayor Kenney says.
He’s not concerned about the price tag for the homes. “I don’t have the faintest idea what’s going to be the benchmark price on the properties. I could [not] care less about that part. Get them on the market; that’s all I want.”

Basile says the EPA will work through the Army Corps of Engineers to place the homes on the market, hopefully by the end of 2014 or start of 2015.

What took so long?

Basile emphasizes the EPA operates on science. He says it took eight years of testing to prove nothing was wrong with the houses.

We asked Basile if he would buy one. “I would definitely move there,” Basile concludes.

Neighbors remain skeptical. Seibert says, “[After] being vacant for ten years, are they even worth selling? Would you want to buy them? I wouldn’t.”

Requa wants them torn down. The EPA says that was never seriously considered because leaders of the Village of Holley didn’t want vacant properties in the middle of their town.

Abandoned facility

EPA records show Diaz Chemical workers abandoned the plant in June 2002. The company went bankrupt and left the EPA with a mess.

“They left in their aftermath this five acre facility [with] vats and 8,000 drums of chemicals sitting on the property.” Basile says it was staggering. “We spent almost $9 million dollars cleaning up the sins that they left.”

Basile says there’s still soil and groundwater contamination at the plant. Workers will install electrodes in the ground and use a new thermal process to heat the leftover contaminants. The process will release vapor and steam. “We have used this technology at other Superfund sites around the country, and that’s going to be the means of clean up.”

The additional clean up at the plant site will likely cost $14 million. That puts the final price tag for the project at $25 million.

Basile defends the buyout of the families, maintenance of the homes and clean-up at the site.

“Yes, it was an expenditure of dollars, but in order to protect humans and the environment, and that’s our job. We didn’t cause the problem. We’re there to clean up the problem,” he concludes.

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