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The idea is appealing: Give Buffalo its first public beach.

The advisability may be another matter.

In fact, opening Gallagher Beach off Route 5 in South Buffalo for public swimming is “probably impractical,” in the words of a report prepared for the Erie County Health Department.

The problem is pollution.

Gallagher Beach is part of the city’s outer harbor, which the federal government has declared an “impaired waterway” because the sediment that lines its shoreline and basin is contaminated with PCBs. The toxic residue of the region’s industrial past has prompted authorities to caution residents to limit the consumption of fish they catch in the outer harbor, which raises the question: If the water isn’t safe for fish, what’s the risk for humans?

The potential problems don’t end there.

Gallagher Beach is within striking distance of two Superfund sites where Bethlehem Steel and Hanna Furnace used to operate plants. The ground at these sites holds a toxic stew that includes benzene, arsenic and lead, and groundwater that potentially carries some or all of these toxins into waterways located upstream from Gallagher Beach.

If that’s not enough, there’s a 36-inch stormwater discharge drain about 600 feet south of the beach – closer than permitted under the state beach code – that spews potentially hazardous chemicals and bacteria into the water during heavy rains. Indeed, Investigative Post visited the area during a recent rain and found garbage, rotting vegetation and geese droppings along the shoreline near the discharge point south of the beach.

These factors prompted the report’s author, John Finster, the county’s former senior public health engineer, to conclude: “The idea of a public beach in the area is appealing but probably impractical from a public health standpoint.”

Finster added that any decision to open a beach should be based on vigorous water quality testing that could be expensive and take considerable time to complete.

Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, on the other hand, has said he’d like to open the beach next year.

Finster’s concerns have been echoed by County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz who, after reading the report, said he, for one, wouldn’t swim at the beach until its waters are proven safe.

“Until we do more testing … I myself wouldn’t swim in it,” he said.

State dodges issue

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announced plans in early September to open Gallagher Beach for swimming as part of a state park that would encompass much of the outer harbor. His administration is refusing to publicly address the pollution concerns, and what little it has said is disquieting.

The state has a bathing beach code that requires vigorous water testing before a beach can be opened for public swimming. You’d think the code would require such testing at Gallagher Beach – state code, state beach and all.

But a spokesman for the state Health Department asserted in an email to Investigative Post that the state beach code “does not apply” to beaches operated by the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, which would manage Gallagher Beach.

That begs the question: What, if any, tests does the state intend to conduct at Gallagher Beach? The Cuomo administration won’t say.

State parks officials in Albany refused to respond to nearly a dozen phone calls and emails to discuss Gallagher Beach. County officials said the state office has told them it plans to conduct testing, but didn’t share details.

The state Department of Environmental Conservation, meanwhile, has failed to respond to a request for documents it may have on water quality at Gallagher Beach. The state Department of Health and the governor’s press office aren’t talking, either.

Warnings about fish

Will the state take the pollution issues seriously?

It’s hard to say, but recent history isn’t encouraging. Despite the government-issued warning to fishermen to limit how much they eat of what they catch on the outer harbor, the state built a pier next to Gallagher Beach in 2011. Thus, tax dollars were spent to help residents to catch the very fish they’re supposed to be wary of eating.

Higgins, a champion of opening the city’s waterfront to the public, has said testing will decide whether the water at Gallagher Beach is safe for swimming.

“The water testing will determine whether or not the waterway is contaminated. If it’s contaminated, it can’t be used as a swimming beach,” he said.

But Higgins turned combative when pressed about the issue, insisting that the outer harbor is not contaminated with PCBs.

“I’m telling you, it’s not,” he told Investigative Post.

His claim runs counter, however, to findings published by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Extensive testing urged

Experts agree that water at the beach needs to be tested.

“This section of the outer harbor has not really been studied and assessed very closely in recent years,” said Jill Jedlicka, executive director of Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper.

An EPA official cautioned that comprehensive testing can be time-consuming.

“We’ve seen cases where it can take two or three seasons to get everything in line and in place,” said Helen Grebe, regional coastal monitoring coordinator with the EPA.

Testing at Gallagher Beach has been limited to water samples taken in 2003 and 2012, both drought periods. The tests checked for the presence of E. coli and similar bacteria. Despite the lack of rainfall, the water at Gallagher Beach failed to pass the grade on five of 29 days tested in 2003 and two of 39 days in 2012.

Water conditions are much worse 6 miles south at Woodlawn Beach in Hamburg. Bacterial contamination from storm and sewer overflows prompted authorities to close or issue an advisory for swimming at Woodlawn more than any beach in the county between 2003 and 2012 – 556 days. Any migration of those contaminants to the outer harbor has not been studied.

Toxins leach into water

Comprehensive testing – if the state does so – would presumably check for the presence of chemical contamination from nearby properties, which, in addition to the two Superfund sites, also includes Tifft Nature Preserve, across Route 5, a former landfill, and the outer harbor’s 1,035 acres, half of which have been categorized as brownfields or are a candidate for such designation.

The sprawling Bethlehem Steel site located less than a half mile upstream from Gallagher Beach is a particular concern. Plant operators dumped slag into Lake Erie before the facility closed in the 1980s. That slag, which expanded the plant site by 440 acres, contains numerous chemicals and heavy metals. Benzene, which causes cancer, has been detected at the site at levels 100,000 times higher than permitted by federal drinking water standards.

“The site presents a significant environmental threat due to the ongoing releases of contaminants from source areas into groundwater,” according to a DEC document. “There is also the potential that contaminated groundwater is impacting Lake Erie.”

The second Superfund site near Gallagher Beach is a 5.5-acre dump at the former Hanna Furnace iron foundry, located 200 feet north of the Union Ship Canal. The canal, which has heavy metal sediment contamination that includes mercury and lead, is located less than 3,000 feet south of the beach and flows into the outer harbor.

No one has determined if the Hanna site would be bad for swimmers at Gallagher Beach. But it certainly isn’t good for fish.

Tom Fuller, interviewed while fishing at the canal several weeks ago, said he’s caught deformed fish there.

“I saw one that looked fine until it turned and went up on its side,” he said. “I said, ‘Ewww.’ The tumors were going down the side by its gills.”

Given the number of potential environmental problems in and around Gallagher Beach, Poloncarz said public health needs to be a priority in determining whether to open it for swimming.

“The most important thing that my administration’s worried about is not whether the beach is open for people to swim in it. It’s whether once it’s open, is the water safe?” he said.

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Investigative Post is a Buffalo-based investigative reporting center. Its work can be found online at InvestigativePost.org.