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Frank Talk on Stalled Lewiston Road Project

Residents learn of their radioactive roads

On Tuesday evening, Frank Parlato, the real estate developer who publishes the Niagara Falls Reporter, opened the community meeting he’d convened on the colossal quagmire of a public works project that is the Lewiston Road reconstruction with a simple question: Is there a problem with this project, three years old and still incomplete, tied up in litigation between the contractor and the City of Niagara Falls, rife with concerns about the radioactive waste and accusations of incompetence and conspiracy on both sides? Or are city residents simply being impatient?

“Of course there’s a problem,” called out a resident of the well-to-do DeVeaux neighborhood, through which Lewiston Road runs. And of course there is: The city’s contractor, Man O’ Trees, walked off the job when the city and its consultants balked at paying for the removal of radioactive fill that the city claims is outside the project’s scope; Man O’ Trees insists that the city deliberately underplayed the quantity and nature of the radioactive waste in order to masquerade an environmental remediation project, for which no funds were available, as a road reconstruction project, for which federal and state funds could be obtained. Attorneys for Man O’ Trees won a temporary injunction preventing the city from allowing another contractor to finish the job until its lawsuit is resolved. The city, meanwhile, has awarded the contract to Accadia Contracting, and is pushing Hanover Insurance, the bonding agent for Man O’ Trees, to agree that Man O’ Trees’s failed to live up to its contract. Hanover seems inclined to believe otherwise.

These grievances will be aired in court in the weeks to come. In the meantime, the only parties without meaningful legal representation in the matter are the residents of the DeVeaux neighborhood, many of whom expressed concern about health and home values Tuesday night.

At Tuesday’s meeting, residents evenly distributed their disdain for Man O’ Trees, the city, and the city’s engineering consultant, Wendel Duchscherer. Dick Soluri, former mayor of Lewiston and current Niagara County legislator, as well as a business associate of Parlato, told the crowd that he’d had bad experiences with both contractor and consultant when he was mayor.

Parlato asked the 60 or 70 people in the Maple Avenue Elementary School if they believed the radioactive waste used as fill in the roadbed, which is at the center of the dispute between the city and Man O’ Trees, posed a health risk. More raised their hands for yes than for no, but most in the auditorium didn’t respond to the question at all. Which is not surprising, given that the assurances that residents receive from government in situations like this—the radioactivity is so slight as to be nearly harmless, exposure is minimal, safety protocols are in place—seem to conflict with their personal experience of illnesses among friends and family and of the dust from road milling settling on their cars and windows and tomato plants. (When Parlato asked if anyone in the DeVeaux neighborhood had experienced problems with dust when the crews were still working on the road, the questions was met with rueful, affirmative laughter.) As for safety protocols, one of the assertions made by Man O’ Trees in its lawsuit is that the city and its project consultants refused to adopt a protocol for the handling of radioactive waste as it was encountered in the roadbed; such a protocol, the contractor argues, would provide guidelines to protect workers and residents, and clarity about who is willing to pay for what, and how much.

The Man O’ Trees lawsuit, which is being argued by Niagara Falls attorney John P. Bartolomei, also asserts that when the city invited a new set of contractors to bid on finishing the job Man O’ Trees started, the city decined to release to those contractors data regarding the nature of the radioactive materials found in the roadbed. Without that information, how can contractors bid reasonably? And how can DeVeaux residents rest easily?

Parlato hopes the residents won’t rest. For Tuesday night’s meeting, he recruited a young community organizer, Morgan Dunbar, previously associated primarily with animal rights campaigns, to help facilitate the creation of a citizens group to research the health hazards, identify the issues that concern residents the most, and lobby for a satisfactory resolution to the star-crossed project.

Mission number one for the nascent organization, per former newshound Tony Farina, who in recent years has worked for Parlato: Get a lawyer.

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