WASHINGTON – Eight to 10 times a year, and year after year, the five Lockport families living along the aptly named Water Street saw Eighteenmile Creek overflow its banks, filling their yards and basements with a toxic brew laced with PCBs, heavy metals and other hazardous wastes.
Friday, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency finally said: Enough.
The EPA proposed a cleanup plan for the Eighteenmile Creek Superfund site that includes relocation of those five families and the demolition of their flood-prone homes.
And while the move of five families pales in comparison with the massive evacuation of the Love Canal Superfund site in the late 1970s, it’s the EPA’s first proposed move of residents in the Buffalo Niagara region since the agency cleared out the Forest Glen Superfund site in Niagara Falls more than 20 years ago.
“Relocation is not something we do often,” said EPA spokesman Elias Rodriguez, but in this case, “relocation would be the best option.”
The families living along Water Street couldn’t agree more. Several have young children, said James Stiles, one of the residents. He has a 3-year-old son, Brad, and has been pressing for the move. “I’m just so happy to get him out of there,” Stiles said.
Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., announced the EPA cleanup plan, which comes four weeks after the latest deluge brought five inches of rain and yet another flood to Water Street.
And while the EPA plan is only a proposal at this point, final approval could come as early as September, Rodriguez said. “This is definitely being expedited,” he said.
Rodriguez said the EPA agreed to buy out the homeowners at the site and demolish the properties because of the extent of the pollution there, along with the risk posed by the repeated flooding.
It’s a buyout the residents of the street have been seeking for years.
Stiles said his parents, Karen and Carl Stiles, started to fight for the move back in 2002, when they still lived in the home that they eventually gave to him after they found they could not sell it.
When Stiles told his mother about the pending move, “she was almost in tears,” Stiles said.
Meanwhile, neighborhood activist Shirley Nicholas, who renewed the fight for the relocation in recent years, said: “This is the best day of my life.”
Nicholas, who lives on nearby Mill Street, recounted the numerous times when Eighteenmile Creek overflowed its banks, leaving the homes on Water Street exposed to a smelly, contaminated mess.
“It’s scary,” she said. “It’s disgusting.”
Nicholas credited former Rep. Kathleen C. Hochul, a Democrat who represented the area in 2011 and 2012, and Schumer for pushing the EPA into action.
The agency’s decision came less than two weeks after Schumer wrote to the agency, asking that the families be moved.
“The EPA’s decision to move the residents away from contamination first, and then clean up the contaminated site, is a smart choice for the health and safety of Western New Yorkers,” said Schumer, who announced the EPA decision.
“This proposed solution takes these residents out of harm’s way and avoids a course of action that would have left them exposed to hazardous contamination,” he said.
It’s the most cost-effective solution the agency could have picked, Schumer noted.
That’s because the EPA can buy all the homes for only $250,000, while an alternative – a soil cap aimed at preventing the floodwaters from encroaching on the homes – would have cost approximately $1.2 million.
What’s more, the residents worried that the soil cap would only have been a temporary solution that could have been washed away in future floods.
Under the plan the EPA is recommending, the agency will demolish the homes, excavate soil from the site, measure the contamination and begin a cleanup.
The homes are located along a section of the creek that has an industrial history dating back more than a century. It borders the old Flintkote building materials plant, which was abandoned after a fire more than 40 years ago.
The Flintkote building is also set for demolition under the EPA plan. In addition, four vacant properties – one privately owned and three owned by the city of Lockport – will be cleaned up.
Rodriguez, the EPA spokesman, said that a final “record of decision” allowing the cleanup plan to move forward will not be issued until after a public meeting at 7 p.m. Aug. 13 in the 4-H Training Center at the Niagara County Fairgrounds, 4487 Lake Ave., Lockport.
He encouraged anyone who is interested in the cleanup plan to attend.
To Schumer, the EPA decision to move the Water Street residents is just plain common sense.
“These homeowners, who have rightfully been concerned about contamination in their yards, drinking water and flooded basements are now going to get the relief and peace of mind they deserve,” Schumer said.