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My Sister's Place, A Local Nonprofit, Will Break Ground Next Year On An Apartment Building In The North End For 30 Of The City's Homeless Families.

April 26, 2007
By DANEIL D’AMBROSIO, Hartford Advocate Staff Writer

Sixty years ago, this abandoned, weed-infested acre and a half lot on the North End’s Pliny Street was percolating with activity, housing a complex of five buildings where the chrome coffee pots of America’s golden age were made by Proctor-Silex.

Think June Cleaver’s kitchen.

Back then, Proctor-Silex proudly advertised its Pliny Street factory as the world’s largest chrome plating facility, according to Maurice Hamel, an environmental analyst with the remediation section of the state Department of Environmental Protection.

“It’s a forgotten piece of Hartford history,” said Hamel.

Today, this sad piece of ground, surrounded by an eight-foot chain link fence and littered with the inevitable stray garbage — punctuated by a faded Spalding basketball, a child’s bicycle frame without wheels, and a black feral cat on the hunt — is on the verge of becoming something good again.

After a cleanup overseen by Hamel of the nasty leftovers from all those years of chrome plating coffee pots, principally chromium and trichloroethylene, or TCE, a new apartment complex for homeless families will be built on the site by My Sisters’ Place, a Hartford-based nonprofit organization.

My Sisters’ Place was one of the first organizations in the state to take in homeless women and their infant children. The nonprofit celebrated its 25th anniversary this year, a bittersweet occasion for Executive Director Diane Paige-Blondet because “our services are still needed.”

“Our goal is to eradicate homelessness,” she says.

My Sisters’ Place helped 750 women and children last year, but turned away an equal number, trying to find them beds in other shelters — not an easy task, given that wealthy suburban communities typically don’t have homeless shelters.

A state plan to build 10,000 units of housing for the homeless is “not enough,” according to Paige-Blondet. The Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness says 33,000 people “experience homelessness” every year in the state, including 13,000 children. The numbers come from reports compiled by the state Department of Social Services.

My Sisters’ Place plans to build 30 units of permanent housing on the former Proctor-Silex site. Paige-Blondet hopes to offer the apartments at 30 percent of fair market rents as determined by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which are: $703 monthly for an efficiency apartment; $842 for a one-bedroom apartment; $1,029 for a two-bedroom apartment; and $1,236 for a three-bedroom apartment. That means ideally a three-bedroom apartment in the new building would go for about $370 per month.

My Sisters’ Place already has 19 apartments for use as transitional housing at the west end of Pliny Street, converting the only remaining factory building, a two-story brick structure with large arched windows. Women and children can stay in those apartments, ranging from one to four bedrooms, for up to two years, while case workers help them get back on their feet with jobs and educations.

In addition, My Sisters’ Place operates a 24-hour emergency shelter on Capen Street that provides temporary housing for up to 16 women and children. This was the organization’s first facility, open for 21 years.

Finally, there’s an apartment building on North Main Street with 30 one-bedroom apartments for single men and women who suffer from one or more of the following: low-income, homelessness, medical problems or psychiatric disabilities.

Proctor-Silex shut down its factory in 1960, after chrome-plated coffee pots began going the way of Brylcreem. There followed a succession of far less successful businesses, including a manufacturer of plastic goods, an auto repair shop, a storage center for used tires and a bottle redemption center.

The buildings were finally abandoned and after many years were torn down by the city in July 2000. That’s when the greenish-yellow Chromium VI, the most toxic of the three forms of chromium, began seeping out of the ground, according to Dr. Mark Mitchell of the Coalition for Environmental Justice.

Mitchell says there was some exposure to the chemical among neighborhood residents, many of whom allowed their children to play on the lot after it was cleared. There were also piles of brick left behind that someone hired locals to clean up before they were hauled off — Mitchell doesn’t know who.

Shortly after the Chromium appeared, Mitchell canvassed the neighborhood and said he identified six people with skin ulcers, a symptom of exposure to Chromium VI. Three of the people were elderly, another was a mentally retarded teenager, and another was an adult who helped clean bricks.

By that point, the Environmental Protection Agency and DEP had caught wind of the situation on Pliny Street, and moved in with inspectors clad in chemical protection suits to survey the abandoned lot. In a September 2000 press conference, the agency announced that very high levels of Chromium VI and high levels of TCE were found on the site, according to Mitchell.

Over the next several months, the lot was fenced off and a temporary cap was put on the contaminated area. The agencies also held a series of neighborhood meetings, telling locals that while the contaminants had to be dealt with, they didn’t believe the exposure among residents had been high enough or long enough to cause any serious health effects.

TCE, a colorless solvent used to remove grease from metal parts, is a known carcinogen and can damage the liver, kidneys, immune system and nervous system after exposure at high levels over many years.

Chromium, used in the chrome-plating process, is mostly an irritant, with high levels of contact causing skin ulcers, and high levels of breathing irritating the nose, lungs, stomach and intestines.

“I don’t know that it’s a carcinogen, but in high enough concentrations it will kill you,” Hamel said. “You don’t want to fall into the plating bath.”

Hamel explained that when the factory buildings were razed and their concrete floors were broken up, the chromium and TCE were inadvertently released. He said Proctor-Silex had not done anything wrong, especially for the times, but that contamination on old factory sites such as this one is inevitable.

“What happened here was back in the ’50s and ’60s stuff dripped on the floor and worked itself through the concrete,” Hamel said. “These were not major spills but a chronic problem. The chemicals got underneath the (concrete) slab and were waiting there.”

In the summer of 2001 and into 2002, Hamel said the direct chemical exposure risks were cleaned up by removing the top layers of soil, and the agencies began investigating what else had to be done in the long term to protect residents and groundwater.

Meanwhile, the responsible party and eventual successor to Proctor-Silex — “some vague conglomerate” called Millennium Holdings Inc., said Hamel — agreed to pay for both the short- and long-term remediation of the site. Proctor-Silex had long since disappeared in a flurry of mergers.

Beginning next month, workers will start removing contaminated soils down to a depth of four feet, hauling off several hundred cubic yards to facilities out of state. Hamel said some of the soil will be considered hazardous waste and will have to go to a secure site, while some will be suitable for a landfill.

The DEP has assured Paige-Blondet that the site will be safe after the cleanup, which is expected to take eight weeks and cost nearly $2 million. Paige-Blondet said despite the DEP’s assurances, there won’t be any vegetable gardens planted on Pliny Street.

Millennium Holdings, said Hamel, is “not excited about putting close to $2 million into a site they abandoned 40 years ago,” but is on the hook for it.

The erstwhile owner of the property, a Cape Cod retiree named Joel Eroni, stopped paying his taxes when it became clear the property was an expensive environmental cleanup waiting to happen. In February, My Sisters’ Place purchased the tax lien from the city for a dollar, and took possession of the land.

“The city wanted somebody to do something with the property,” Hamel said. “(Eroni) owed $400,000 on back taxes.”

Paige-Blondet said she’ll be applying for state funding from the state Housing Finance Authority for the apartment building, which she hopes will break ground next year. My Sisters’ Place will launch a capital campaign as well for costs not covered by grants.

Despite the generally good news — “This one is a success story,” says Hamel — Paige-Blondet is reminded that it “seems like our numbers (of homeless) are growing.”

Some women are homeless and pregnant when they come to My Sisters’ Place. Paige-Blondet said babies are born in the organization’s shelter — their first home — and My Sisters’ Place provides everything the new mother needs, including pampers and formula. That taxes the organization’s $1.8 million annual budget even further.

“We never have enough,” she said. “We’re always looking for ways to stretch a dollar. There are so many people we need to care about.”

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Advocate.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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