on July 10, 2013 - 9:29 PM
, updated July 11, 2013 at 2:15 PM
The federal government is weighing whether to permanently relocate residents from about a half-dozen contaminated Water Street homes in the City of Lockport because of the contamination of Eighteenmile Creek.
That did not seem likely as recently as last month when more than 75 city residents jammed a public forum and heard U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officials discount the suggestion despite ardent pleas from many residents of this narrow, secluded road hugging the contaminated creek and others who live in the city’s historic Lowertown neighborhood.
“Permanent relocation is something we are looking at at the current time,” said Michael Basile, the local community involvement coordinator for the EPA.
Basile said a proposed remedial action plan will likely be released in early August.
Following five inches of rain June 28, Eighteenmile Creek – with its toxic stew of PCBs, heavy metals and other hazardous materials – overflowed its banks into nearby properties. Residents then renewed demands for a federally funded relocation.
“Getting people out” has turned into a mission for James Stiles, a Water Street resident whose backyard became a three-foot-deep lake and an extension of Eighteenmile Creek during the storm.
“It would be way cheaper for them just to relocate us and save people from potentially more harmful, poisonous materials,” said Stiles, who lives in the home with his 3-year-old son. “That creek gets flooded every single year onto my property and into my basement.”
Stiles and others on Water Street object to the EPA’s suggestion of “capping” the contaminated yards of Water Street residents with clean fill as a way to serve as an immediate, albeit temporary, remedy.
That fill, residents believe, would only get recontaminated the next time the creek overflows, rendering a proposed $1.2 million project a waste of money.
Homes on the street are roughly valued at about $40,000.
“I don’t know why they’d even consider that option,” said David Pettigrew II of Water Street. “It’s like putting a Band-Aid on something that needs to be stitched.”
Shirley Nichols, a neighborhood activist who is fighting to get help for Water Street and other parts of Lowertown affected by toxic contamination, said buying out homeowners, even at $50,000 per property, would amount to a $250,000 bill compared with $1.2 million.
“You can come in there and rip it all down and get it right the first time. It makes common sense,” said Nichols. “With this flooding and whatnot, all their cellars are contaminated. What are you going to do with that?”
Pettigrew, the father of a newborn son, fears for his child’s safety living in a house surrounded by contamination.
“I’m not going to be able to stay here once my child is old enough to go out and play. I’m not going to let my child get sick from this,” said Pettigrew, who favors relocation.
Across the street, Pettigrew’s mother-in-law, Kristina Morrison, shares the sentiment but finds any of the options heartbreaking.
“It’s a bittersweet answer,” Morrison said about a possible relocation.
Morrison bought her home on Water Street in 2001 for $36,900. A year later, she said, she received a letter notifying her the pastoral-looking ground around her house, which runs to the western edge of Eighteenmile Creek, was toxic. She said she was warned not to walk barefoot in her yard and instructed not to grow a garden there.
“I haven’t planted anything,” Morrison said. “Nothing grows here anyways.”
Even so, it’s her home – one that she picked, ironically, because of what she called a “beautiful,” private, quiet location near the creek. Morrison raised her children there and has spent thousands updating the home, including installing a new roof, windows, furnace and hot water tank.
Setting aside those emotional ties, Morrison said she has some practical concerns.
“I bought this house making $8.50 per hour. I bought what I could afford,” Morrison said. “Yes, I would love to relocate. My concern is, where are you going to relocate me that I can afford on my income?”
“Either way, it’s not going to be a good situation.”
During the recent storm, Morrison watched the creek waters seize her expansive backyard, creeping to within several yards of the rear of her home.
Simultaneously, sewer water rushed down Water Street from the other direction toward her home after pressure in the system blew the caps off the mains in the street. Pavement was washed clear off the street.
“The whole crawl space under the house flooded. My whole foundation is completely cracked,” Morrison said. “The whole yard is completely contaminated.”
Added Pettigrew: “You couldn’t tell where the creek started and where the yard started.”
Morrison returned to her home the next day and discovered she had neither gas service nor a working furnace.
“We have no other choice; we have nowhere to go,” she said.
Basile said the EPA recognizes time is of the essence for many in the neighborhood. That’s why since the area was added to the federal Superfund list last year, the agency has been working expeditiously on a proposed remedial action plan.
Once that plan is in place early next month, a 30-day public comment period officially begins. Then, any necessary revisions or alternatives will be made to the plan to “effectively meet the objectives of the Superfund program,” Basile said.
“The public will have an opportunity at an open public meeting to agree with us or disagree with us,” said Basile.
It is unclear in which direction the EPA recommendations seem to be headed. EPA officials, Basile said, are still formulating the plan, but he said permanent relocation will “definitely be one of the proposed alternatives.”
“We listen to the residents,” Basile said.