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Information meeting set for possible lawsuit against Air Brake

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North side residents should learn more on Thursday about potential litigation regarding contaminants possibly dumped from the former New York Air Brake site off Starbuck Avenue years ago.

Representatives from the California law firm made famous made by environmental activist Erin Brockovich are holding an informational meeting about the status of a possible lawsuit against the locomotive equipment manufacturer.

That night, representatives from the Vititoe Law Group will provide be on hand to answer questions and give a status report about what’s going on, said James P. Barker, who has been involved organizing the legal efforts locally.

The meeting will be at 6:30 p.m. at the North Elementary School.

“If people have questions, now is the time to get them answered,” he said Saturday.

Mr. Barker also will learn more about the status that night, he said. At this point, he does not know when the suit will be filed.

Robert W. Bowcock, an environmental investigator with Ms. Brockovich, and a small group of attorneys from the law firm will be there. Mr. Barker did not know whether Ms. Brockovich will be attending.

Last year, the Vititoe Law Group agreed to represent residents who believe they have suffered health problems from the toxic chemicals that were dumped at the Starbuck Avenue site decades ago and ended up in Kelsey and Oily creeks.

Last summer, neighbors and former residents told stories about family members suffering nerve disorders, cancer and birth defects. Mr. Barker and his brother, Scott W. Barker, and a former neighbor, Andrew G. Williams, initiated the inquiry into Air Brake after the three developed nerve problems.

They expressed concerns about levels of trichloroethylene, or TCE, and polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, found in the neighborhood over the years. TCE and PCBs are carcinogens, while TCE also can cause nerve disorders. They said they believe that contaminants were dumped in Kelsey and Oily creeks.

If the case goes forward, the lawsuit most likely would be against New York Air Brake; Knorr-Bremse Group, the company’s current parent company, and SPX Corp., the North Carolina company that was involved in previous cleanup efforts.

The Vititoe law firm was featured in the 2000 film “Erin Brockovich” that starred Julia Roberts as the environmental activist who uncovered toxic chemicals in 1993 that emanated from Pacific Gas & Electric Co. in California. The law firm, then headed by the late attorney Edward L. Masry, won a $333 million class-action lawsuit on behalf of about 650 clients who suffered a variety of health problems.

So far, about 250 people submitted retainer forms to the lawyers, the first step in filing a lawsuit, Mr. Barker said. He said he hopes about 200 people show up for the meeting.

The case could turn into a class-action lawsuit.

In 1995, the state Department of Environmental Conservation dredged Kelsey Creek and removed contaminants and soil. But residents said they believe pollutants got into the ground and spread off site and back into Kelsey Creek, causing subsequent health problems for them and their families.

In 2008, the DEC conducted “vapor intrusion” tests and found unacceptable levels of TCE, an industrial solvent used at the Air Brake plant decades ago, in four on-site buildings and a house at 431 E. Hoard St., which subsequently was equipped with an air-mitigation system.

In all, 43 houses, two schools and a church were tested off site.

Some of the neighbors have complained that DEC failed to do more to make sure the creeks were safe. This past spring, the state agency began testing the two north side creeks to check for possible contaminants.

DEC officials could not be reached for comment Saturday.

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