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Toxic Levels of Lead Found at Nursing Home Development, Foes of Site Say

By Emily Frost | April 26, 2013 11:29am | Updated on April 29, 2013 11:39am

UPPER WEST SIDE — Residents opposed to the building of a new nursing home development say they have uncovered evidence that there are toxic levels of lead at the site.

The nursing home provider, Jewish Home Lifecare, has said it has outgrown its West 106th Street location and is developing a new model for a 20-story building at West 97th Street, called The Living Center of Manhattan, that will help seniors feel more like they're in their own homes. 

The development which is situated next to Park West Village, urban renewal housing, and elementary school P.S. 163 has drawn the ire of residents and parents since its inception in 2008.

Construction on the $250 million complex, originally slated to begin in February 2013, has been pushed to the spring of 2014, said Ethan Geto, a spokesman for the non-profit. 

Despite the efforts to block the project's progress, JHL said it has gotten the green light from state and city agencies to move forward: it received approval in 2012 from the city's Department of Buildings for a foundation permit; a city Planning Commission certification to allow it to move from West 106th to West 97th Street; and a Certificate of Need from the State Department of Health. 

But Martin Rosenblatt, who is working alongside members of the Park West Village Tenants' Association and concerned residents as part of the group No JHL and PWV, told a crowd of about 150 people Wednesday night at a public meeting that samples of the soil taken from around the development site contained high levels of lead. He worked with Laurence Molloy, whom Rosenblatt said is a recognized lead expert, as well as an architect, licensed contractor and bacteriology technician to retrieve the samples. 

The high levels stem from the site's long history as a parking lot for residents, Rosenblatt said. Until 1996, when it was banned by the EPA, lead was a component in gasoline and was spewed into the soil when cars emitted exhaust. 

Samples from the soil's surface, as well as 6 feet below ground, were tested and the results sent to a variety of doctors and public health experts, Rosenblatt said. Several doctors confirmed in letters that any amount of lead exposure posed a health risk, especially to children and babies, he said. 

If the soil were undisturbed, he told the audience, the exposure risk would be minimal. But construction would create a threat, he added, drawing on testimony from medical experts and Molloy's experience.

"Construction at the site will cause a dusty environment. There will be children as well as adults [exposed to lead],” wrote Dr. Marc Wilkenfeld, the Chief of Occupational and Environmental Medicine at Winthrop Hospital in Mineola, New York. 

"Every developer tells you not to worry — 'We’re going to mitigate dust.' No developer tells you this is going to be a mess," Rosenblatt said. 

Geto, however, said the JHL has abided by all government regulations so far and would continue to do so.

"No findings or documentation has been provided to JHL to establish that there is contamination of the soil on the construction site...Not having seen the analysis of lead contamination claimed in the study or having it reviewed by an expert not associated with advocates for blocking the project, it is not possible to know at this juncture if any further environmental review is warranted," Geto wrote in an email. 

The next phase of the group's opposition plan hinges on getting the New York State Department of Health to do an Environmental Impact Review, whereby independent testing and public hearings would be required.  

The state is required under the State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQR) to make a so-called negative declaration (citing the project does not have an effect on the environment); a conditioned negative declaration (stating that certain conditions must be met); or a positive declaration (a decision that holds that the project could potentially have an impact).

If a positive declaration is made, an "Environmental Impact Statement" and review is required. 

The state's decision under SEQR has not been made public, but Rosenblatt said he has filed a Freedom of Information Act request to obtain its decision. 

"Once you point out a health hazard... [the State Department of Health] can’t ignore it… even if they do their own investigation," insisted Rosenblatt, "if they say it’s not needed, we can go to court and appeal." 

Petitions calling for an environmental review were handed out to those assembled Wednesday night.

"This fight is just beginning," Rosenblatt said.