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First of a three-part series

Thirty-five years after underground toxics turned the Niagara Falls neighborhood of Love Canal into a ghost town, researchers are warning that Western New York is still home to nearly 800 hazardous waste sites that could someday lead to big trouble, not only for local residents, but for the entire Great Lakes region.

A recently completed study, believed to be the most comprehensive look ever at hazardous waste sites in Western New York, finds potential chemical hazards lurking across Erie, Niagara and Cattaraugus counties.

• Half of the world’s known radium is stored about a mile from the Lewiston-Porter schools, where approximately 2,300 students attend classes each day.

• The most deadly wastes from all over the Northeast are hauled along local roads to a dump site in Niagara County.

• Lead from a former smelting plant on East Ferry Street is believed to be linked to a deadly outbreak of lupus on Buffalo’s East Side.

• And radioactive waste from the West Valley nuclear storage facility in Cattaraugus County could someday endanger the Great Lakes.

What makes this information important and worrisome – not only to Western New Yorkers, but to tens of millions of other Americans and Canadians – is that the vast majority of these waste sites are located in the Great Lakes watershed, the largest source of fresh water in the world.

Many of the sites are either directly adjacent or close to Lake Erie, Lake Ontario, the Niagara and Buffalo rivers, or other waterways that feed the Great Lakes.

An estimated 26 million to 40 million people drink the water from the Great Lakes, which contain more than one-fifth of the world’s fresh surface water.

“It’s important … It’s overwhelming,” said Joseph A. Gardella Jr., an environmentalist and University at Buffalo chemistry professor who co-authored the study that was completed by the Western New York Environmental Alliance, the Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo and the University at Buffalo’s Urban Design Project.

“This information is a wake-up call,” said Brian P. Smith, program director for the Western New York Citizens Campaign for the Environment. “Policymakers need to look at it, digest it and find out what wastes are in their districts. We need to work to comprehensively clean up the waste in a way that is protective of public health. Protecting the Great Lakes has to be one of our top priorities.”

Some of the material is leftover from industry or war projects. And more dangerous material continues to be hauled here from elsewhere because this region has become a dumping ground for other communities’ poisons and wastes.

Among the most significant findings:

• Niagara County has more than twice as many federal- and state-designated hazardous waste sites as comparably sized counties throughout the state.

• The three counties contain 174 federal or state “Superfund” hazardous waste sites, 43 designated as “significant threats” to public health.

• Erie County has almost eight times as many brownfield cleanup sites as the average county in the state, and Niagara County has more than twice as many as the average county.

“Are we overburdened with waste? Yes, with all kinds of waste,” said Lynda H. Schneekloth, a professor at UB’s Urban Design Project. “We never knew how much of it was out there until we conducted this study.”

Niagara County, which is much smaller than the average county in the state in terms of population and area, is especially overburdened, she said.

The job of protecting people in Western New York from hazardous waste mainly falls on two watchdog agencies – the state Department of Environmental Conservation and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The DEC has a much bigger presence than the EPA in Western New York and is more actively involved on a day-to-day basis.

Despite the presence of these hundreds of waste sites, the public safety situation is “light-years better” than it was in the late 1970s, said EPA spokesman Michael J. Basile. That’s because the two agencies constantly monitor the sites, he said.

“We have better regulation of these sites, much more attention is paid to environmental issues, and we have a much better-educated public than we did in the ’70s,” Basile said. “Whether you live around the corner from a dry cleaners or an industrial waste landfill, there are environmental regulations. We work hard to enforce them. So does the state.”

Reacting to the claim that Western New York is overburdened with hazardous waste sites, Basile said he does not believe so. He added that the DEC would be better equipped to answer that question.

“I will say that, in the Northeast, there is a historical preponderance of industrial activity, whether you are talking about Buffalo, Pittsburgh or Niagara Falls,” Basile said. “[Western New York] is not the toxic capital of the world. It’s easy for someone to make that claim, but it’s not the case.”

A DEC spokeswoman declined to comment for this story, but according to Gardella, much of the data in the “Mapping Waste” study came directly from DEC records.

Much waste produced here

So how did all this waste get here in the first place? Much of it was produced here. Decades ago, during the 1900s, chemical companies were attracted to Niagara County because of the proximity to the cheap and plentiful electrical power generated by Niagara Falls. Easy access to fresh water, another key component in the chemical industry, also was important.

“Sixty years ago, Niagara Falls was like the Silicon Valley of the chemical industry. Many chemical plants were built in the city,” Schneekloth said. “It brought great wealth to the region, but also a great negative legacy. Today, the wealth is mostly gone, but the negative legacy is still with us. Love Canal is the most famous example, but there are many others.”

Another reason why Niagara County has such a big share of radioactive waste is that much of the work on the Manhattan Project, which led to the development of the atomic bomb during World War II, was done here.

After the Manhattan Project was completed, radioactive waste generated by the bomb project was gathered, then deposited and stored in the Niagara Falls Storage Site off Pletcher Road in Lewiston.

And then there is all the waste that is still being hauled here – to the Chemical Waste Management landfill in the Town of Porter – from other areas of New York State and the Northeast.

Gardella, the UB chemistry professor, suggests an inordinate number of landfills were started in Western New York because land is cheaper here than downstate. In addition, he said, the region has always lacked political clout.

“Do you think that if the [Chemical Waste Management] waste facility was in the Catskills, or on Long Island, rather than the Town of Porter, the people in New York City would tolerate it for a minute?” Gardella said. “We became the dumping ground for other parts of the state.”

Massive effort to compile

About 100 local environmental groups worked on the 223-page study. The information they examined has been available in complicated reports from a variety of government agencies for years, but never before assembled into one comprehensive report. Even the federal government has not done it before.

The study compiles information from the EPA, the DEC, the state Health Department, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Defense Department, the U.S. Department of Energy and other government agencies.

The study is based on a 2010 “snapshot” of the region’s waste sites, but there has been little change since then.

“Yes, this information has been available for years, but only in ways that are very difficult for the average person to access and decipher,” Gardella said. “We’re professionals, and we were tearing our hair out trying to make sense out of some of these government reports.”

All the government agencies – especially the state DEC – were helpful and cooperative with researchers, rather than trying to hide information, he added.

The report identifies Superfund sites as the most heavily polluted, and the study lists a total of 174 state or federal Superfund sites in the three counties.

Of those, the state DEC classifies 22 sites in Erie County, 15 sites in Niagara County and six in Cattaraugus County as “Class 2 Superfund” sites, meaning they pose a current threat to human health and are being remediated.

Many of these most serious waste sites are located near neighborhoods, schools and places of work.

In Erie County, the Class 2 Superfund sites include the American Axle plant on East Delavan Avenue, the Radio Tower site at 901 Fuhrmann Blvd. on Buffalo’s outer harbor, the Tonawanda Coke plant on River Road in the Town of Tonawanda, and the former Bethlehem Steel property at 3555 Lake Shore Drive, Lackawanna.

Class 2 Superfund sites in Niagara County include the arsenic-tainted FMC Corp. site near the Royalton-Hartland High School in Middleport, and the former Forest Glen mobile home park in Niagara Falls.

Greg Evans, 48, a disabled truck driver, has lived all his life within a few blocks of two major hazardous waste sites in Niagara Falls – the Love Canal landfill and another former Hooker Chemical waste site along the Niagara River on Buffalo Avenue.

Like many people in Niagara Falls, he is concerned about the chemical waste in his community.

“In my opinion, there are chemicals all over this city. I’ve been fortunate. I’ve never gotten sick from them,” Evans said. “I do think it’s something to be concerned about. It should be constantly studied and tested.”

Falls has most sites in state

Niagara Falls has more hazardous wastes than any other in New York State.

The EPA currently lists 211 hazardous waste cleanup sites in the state. These are sites contaminated by hazardous waste currently stored there or stored there in the past.

Twelve of those sites are in Niagara Falls. No other city, town or village in the state has more than six.

The Niagara Falls cleanup sites include the mammoth CECOS International waste dump, a huge garbage hill off the Niagara Thruway; the Durez Corp. chemical waste site off Packard Road; and the former Forest Glen mobile home park off Porter Road, where 150 people had to be relocated in the early 1990s after the discovery that toxic waste had been illegally dumped there.

Also included on the EPA’s Niagara Falls list are the Frontier Chemical waste site on Royal Avenue, where oily contaminants called non-aqueous phase liquids have been found in the groundwater; the Hooker Chemical Hyde Park site, where groundwater contains dioxin and volatile organic compounds; and the Occidental Chemical plant on Buffalo Avenue, where chlorine, caustic soda and other chemical compounds are made.

Many of the sites in Niagara Falls are close to the Niagara River, which connects lakes Erie and Ontario.

A Cattaraugus County site that concerns environmentalists is the West Valley Demonstration Project, a nuclear waste facility in the Town of Ashford. A nuclear fuel reprocessing center was operated on the site from 1966 to 1972, and radioactive waste from atomic weapons and nuclear power plants was shipped there from other regions of the U.S.

If the nuclear waste is not removed from West Valley, environmentalists warn that it will eventually leak into the region’s creeks and migrate to the Great Lakes. “This is a situation that is not going away,” said Smith, of the citizens for the environment group.

Making legislators aware

So now that this report is completed and the breadth of the poisoned sites has been identified, what to do with it?

In recent weeks, Gardella and other environmentalists associated with the study have met and briefed several legislators about problems in their communities.

“We’re going out and telling them what sites they have in their districts, what needs to be done about them and what government agencies are responsible for them,” Gardella said.

The recent Tonawanda Coke trial in federal court is seen by some as evidence that people and community groups can force government watchdog agencies to investigate and punish polluters.

Tonawanda Coke had been polluting for years at its plant along the Niagara River, but the EPA and U.S. Attorney’s Office didn’t begin major investigations until a public outcry from neighborhood residents and the Clean Air Coalition of Western New York, a grass-roots organization.

Last month, the company that runs Tonawanda Coke and a top plant official were convicted of criminally polluting the air and ground in the neighborhood. The company and the convicted official face potential fines of up to $200 million. People who live near a contamination site cannot rely on government to fix the problem, said Erin Heaney, executive director of the Clean Air Coalition.

Citizen groups such as the Clean Air Coalition and Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper “are fantastic,” said the EPA’s Basile. “They get involved. They keep our agencies on our toes, and sometimes act as our eyes and ears.”

It’s unfortunate, Basile said, that groups such as Riverkeeper have to spend time cleaning up thousands of tons of garbage that is illegally dumped in waterways and on beaches by average citizens each year.

“That is a problem you can’t lay at the feet of government or industry,” Basile said.

In terms of government cleanup efforts at waste sites, tough and expensive decisions lie ahead.

Environmentalists admit it would cost untold billions of dollars to clean up all the contamination in Western New York. Gardella said it would cost $1.5 billion to $2 billion to clean up waste at the Niagara Falls Storage Site at 1397 Pletcher Road, where radioactive waste from the atomic bomb project, including half the world’s known radium, are stored.

“There are major decisions that have to be made all over Western New York,” said Smith, from the Western New York Citizens Campaign for the Environment. “But if we don’t clean these sites up now, they will cost us much more later.”

email: dherbeck@buffnews.com and tpignataro@buffnewscom