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Air Brake lawsuit could be filed within two months

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WATERTOWN - As many as 400 people could be a part of the lawsuit that will be filed against New York Air Brake involving contaminants possibly dumped from the company’s former site off Starbuck Avenue years ago, a representative of a California law firm handling the case said Thursday night.

Robert W. Bowcock, an environmental investigator associated with the Vititoe Law Group, said he expects a notice of claim, the first step in a lawsuit, to be filed within 60 days.

On Thursday night, Mr. Bowcock and Melissa Dutcher, the case manager working on the lawsuit, met with about 75 potential clients at North Elementary School to discuss the litigation and advise them what to expect if they join it.

“We’re giving them an update and where we’re at and what’s the next step,” he said.

Reporters were not allowed to attend the closed-door session, although Mr. Bowcock held an impromptu press conference before the meeting began.

About 400 people have given enough information indicating they have a claim in the case, either because they are suffering from medical problem or because of the financial impact the potential contaminants have had on their homes, he said.

Last year, the Vititoe — the law firm made famous made by environmental activist Erin Brockovich — agreed to represent residents who believe they have suffered health problems from toxic chemicals dumped at the Starbuck Avenue site decades ago.

North side residents and people who no longer live in the neighborhood have expressed concerns about levels of trichloroethylene, or TCE, found in the neighborhood over the years. TCE is a carcinogen and can cause nerve disorders. They said they believe that contaminants were dumped in Kelsey and Oily creeks.

Mr. Bowcock said he and the law firm have concluded “a TCE plume exists underneath the neighborhood.”

North side resident Patricia J. McWayne and her daughter, Shane M. McWayne, decided to attend to find out more about the possible lawsuit. For 12 years, they lived across the street from Air Brake’s dump, they said before the meeting.

The daughter suffers from nerve damage, diabetes, organ problems and asthma, and has had a number of tumors removed, she said. Her father, Frederick, who worked at Air Brake for many years over two different stints, died of cancer, she said.

“Something has to be done,” Shane McWayne said.

During the meeting, Mr. Bowcock expected residents “would be divided up into various categories,” including residents suffering from health problems, and residents who are renters, homeowners, deed holders and those who have paid off their mortgages. It will not be a class action lawsuit, he said, adding it will consist of individual lawsuits and one as a group.

If the case goes forward, the lawsuit most likely would be against New York Air Brake and Allied Chemical, he said.

When Mr. Bowcock first got involved in the issue last summer, neighbors and former residents told stories about family members suffering nerve disorders, cancer and birth defects.

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.

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.

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