When Mary Martuscello moved to the Houghton Plot neighborhood in 1991, and she and her husband began to find glass and “sludge” while planting their garden, she didn't know what it was.
When Mary Martuscello moved to the Houghton Plot neighborhood in 1991, and she and her husband began to find glass and “sludge” while planting their garden, she didn’t know what it was.
Her neighbors explained that the area had apparently been a dumping site for waste from glass production and other manufacturing in the area.
“I got educated,” she said.
Over the years, she said she’s raised questions with city officials and with contractors hired to do city assessments, and was told it wasn’t a cause for concern.
“Nobody made a big deal about it,” Martuscello said. “No one cared.”
Twenty-five years later – a quarter century of living in the neighborhood and eating vegetables grown in soil state officials now say might be toxic – her husband is gone, lost to a disease so rare only 200 people have been diagnosed with it. Mary has multiple sclerosis, and one of her eight children tested positive for lead poisoning.
She insists she’s not accusing anyone of anything.
“I’m not a doctor,” she said.
She doesn’t know if what might be in the soil is linked to her illness, or the one that took her husband away, and she doesn’t know for sure who put it there.
Some of her neighbors didn’t want to speak to the press, or wouldn’t allow their names to be published. Some of them said they don’t want to speak out against the company that employs, or used to employ, so many of the residents of Houghton Plot.
Martuscello said that doesn’t worry her.
“You have to make a statement,” she said.
On July 1, the state Department of Environmental Conservation announced that, under its oversight, Corning Inc. would be conducting an environmental study to determine if lead and other chemicals found in soil during construction of the new Corning-Painted Post High School might also be in other nearby areas.
The study will begin as soon as next week, and is expected to last throughout the summer.
A DEC spokesperson said Corning Inc. was being asked to conduct the study because documentation "suggests Corning has some responsibility" for what may or may not be found in the soil and groundwater.
Corning Inc. spokesman Dan Collins told The Leader last week that the company had been asked to take part because they were the last of the manufacturers from that time period still operating.
"There were scores and scores of glass manufacturing companies, brick manufacturing companies and other manufacturing companies in this area 70, 80, 90 years ago," Collins said.
He said that makes it "nearly impossible to determine who’s responsible.”
Along with the announcement of the study, the DEC released a list of recommendations for residents in the affected area: don’t allow children to dig or play in the soil; to mop floors to remove soil that might have been tracked indoors; don’t eat vegetables grown directly in the potentially contaminated soil, and others.
The full list is available online at www.dec.ny.gov/chemical/97180.html.
The study will include the area bounded by Pyrex Street, the Chemung River, Post Creek and East Pulteney Street.
That’s in City Councilman Frank Muccini’s Fifth Ward, and it’s an issue he’s quite familiar with.
Thursday, he stood near Houghton Park, and pointed one by one at the homes that surround it and talked about the folks who once lived in them – “they died from cancer,” “he had MS,” etc.
The diseases that seem to him, and to Martuscello, to be too common.
“Coincidence? I don’t believe in coincidences like that,” Muccini said.
Muccini said he’s been speaking to people about what’s in the ground in Houghton Plot for two decades now.
He said when Corning-Painted Post School District officials began planning the changes that ultimately led to a new high school in the neighborhood, he suggested they locate the high school at the West High site in Painted Post instead, and build the middle school at the East High site.
He said that would have required less disturbance of the soil, which he already believed was potentially hazardous.
The school district eventually spent $7.9 million removing dirt contaminated with lead and other chemicals from the site.
It was the media reports of that soil removal that DEC officials said led to their decision to seek further study of the area.
Anna BeCraft, Martuscello’s neighbor, said it was a mistake for the school district to take responsibility for the cleanup, rather than first finding out who might be responsible for the presence of toxic chemicals at the site.
She’s also angry that information about the study reached residents through the media, rather than through elected officials.
“That bothered me a lot,” she said.
She collects the glass fragments, or sometimes complete objects, that “work their way up” to the surface of her yard, along with a steady supply of bricks and stone blocks from under the ground.
She’s used the bricks to make the border to her garden.
BeCraft said when she moved to the area in 1950, waste material from glass
manufacturing was piled up in plain sight in the neighborhood.
“It was all out there exposed – right there where the fire station is (now),” she said.
Her brothers used to play in the debris piles back then.
Doug Benjamin grew up on Corning Boulevard, and also used to climb amongst the glass pieces and other waste, looking for interesting objects.
He said parents weren’t worried about their children playing at the dump site.
“It was different back then,” he said.
He admits he doesn’t have any proof, but he says he also remembers seeing large barrels at the dump site, though he doesn’t know what might have been in them.
“I saw the barrels when they came in – where they ended up, I don’t know,” Benjamin said.
DEC officials said those who wish to have their property tested for soil contamination should call project manager Gregory MacLean at the agency's Avon office at (585) 226-5356 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Another resident, George Hunt, said he called the office and was told his property was already scheduled to be tested, provided he gave permission to allow the workers on his property.
Hunt said though his family’s found a few pieces of cullet – glass fragments – in their yard over the years, he’s not worried about what a test will turn up.
He remembers the dump site well enough, when he used to deliver newspapers in the area in the 1930s.
“I don’t ever remember this area being a dump,” he said, though he acknowledged that it could have been one before his time – he’s 90 now.
He said he was told it might be “a couple of months” until testing of his land took place.
Another resident, who asked not to be identified, said he’d spoken to the DEC, but had been told his land would only be tested if workers determine it’s necessary to extend the testing area.
He said he’d been finding glass in his yard for years, including labeled Pyrex objects.
Utility workers doing maintenance on a gas line just 2-3 feet down ran into glass and other debris as well, the man said.
He’s hoping the testing will eventually include his property, and he’s willing to hold off on his concerns until he sees the results.
“I’m not worried about anything until they do testing,” he said.
Residents choosing to move to the area “take it at their word there’s not a problem,” he said. “You’d think everything would have been tested by now.”