Buffalo snubs county on lead poisoning

News and analysis by Dan Telvock, Investigative Post's environmental reporter

Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz’s lead prevention proposal is stuck in the County Legislature’s Finance and Management Committee after city officials twice declined invitations to appear to answer questions.

The absence of city officials at these committee meetings is a continuation of a pattern on the part of City Hall officials, which Poloncarz administration officials fear is playing into the hands of suburban Republican legislators who appear reluctant to support the county executive’s initiative.

Majority Leader Joseph Lorigo said during an April 7 committee meeting that he had invited Louis Petrucci, the city’s assistant director of permit and inspection services, to appear before the panel.

“He was planning on coming and unfortunately, I’m not sure why, but he’s not coming now,” Lorigo said.

Petrucci offered a different version. He said he agreed to appear before the Legislature, but said he was unavailable on the 7th and asked that his appearance be rescheduled. Petrucci said he did not receive an invitation for the following meeting on April 21. He has said agreed to appear on May 5.

“No one is trying to snub the county,” Petrucci said.

Meanwhile, Legislature Chairman John Mills subsequently invited Common Council Majority Leader David Rivera to last week’s committee meeting “to discuss … how the County and City can work together to appropriately address this issue for our residents.”

Legislative staff members said Rivera originally accepted the invitation, only to rescind it about seven hours later. Instead, he wrote Mills a two-page letter that stated the Council had purchased home lead test kits and will distribute informational brochures.

“As you are aware, the Erie County Department of Health is the lead agency for lead poisoning prevention,” Rivera wrote, echoing the position of Mayor Byron Brown.

“We are in full support of their work and County Executive Poloncarz’s proposal to expand their impact by providing services for children who have between blood lead levels of 5-9 micrograms per deciliter.”

In other words, thanks but no thanks.

The Erie County Health Department has primary responsibility for inspecting homes for lead hazards and employs 12 health sanitarians who inspect about 2,500 housing units a year. Some 85,000 units in the city are considered at risk of lead hazards.

Poloncarz has proposed spending $3.75 million over five years to hire six additional health sanitarians and a nurse to manage the cases of children who test at levels that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers to be concerning.

The mayor told reporters over a month ago that he is considering options, but he has yet to commit to providing additional services or money to help the county tackle this problem that is worse in his city.

For example, more than 90 percent of the children in Erie County testing for dangerous levels of lead in their blood live in Buffalo. In addition, neighborhoods on the city’s west and east sides accounted for three of the four ZIP codes in all of upstate reporting the most new cases, according to the state’s most recent comparable data for a three-year period ending in 2012.

Now, the aforementioned pattern.

It dates to at least February 2014 when the Common Council, at the urging of then Masten District Council Member Demone Smith, passed a resolution asking the Erie County Health Department to postpone its lead inspections programs in the city’s hotspots. Smith cited complaints from property owners and Realtors, but the Health Department rejected the request.

Two months later, Common Council President Darius Pridgen failed to appear to make closing remarks at a well-attended lead poisoning prevention conference at the UB Clinical and Translational Research Center.

Over the past year, County Health Commissioner Dr. Gale Burstein has quietly complained about a lack of communication with city officials, to the point where she had a ranking state health official write Brown requesting a meeting. No meeting among the city, county and state has taken place.

Most recently, the Council largely ignored a warning from a lead poisoning prevention expert who advised that their plan to purchase home lead test kits was a “very dangerous idea” with the potential for “extremely hazardous” results. The chief complaint with the tests is they are unreliable.

 

(This GreenPost is also published in this week’s edition of The Public.)