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Seven Days: now with 17% more maps

What does the Ukraine have in common with Niagara County?

Welcome to Chernobyl

The reconstruction of Lewiston Road in Niagara Falls is $1.4 million over budget and months behind schedule, according to a Niagara Gazette report earlier this month, and city officials are trying to shed the West Seneca contractor they hired last year to do the work.

The trouble is that the radioactive material that everyone knew was in the roadbed has proved to be more widespread and difficult to handle than city and state officials were willing to acknowledge.

In this paper, we’ve been warning for three years that the current reconstruction of Lewiston Road and the upcoming reconstruction of Buffalo Avenue pose significant risks to human health and home values. For three years we’ve been warning that studies conducted by the federal government in the 1970s and 1980s suggest that the fill used the last time these roads were rebuilt contained significant levels of dangerous, exotic radiological wastes, which should not simply be shrugged off as “slag” left over from some benign industrial process. The pre-project environmental surveys performed by defense-contracting giant SAIC seemed to confirm our claims: SAIC reported some pockets of contamination along Lewiston Road that registered 100,000 counts per minute on a Geiger counter, or 4,000 times a reasonable definition of background level radiation. A spokeswoman for DEC recently acknowledged that levels as high as 140,000 counts per minute were discovered in the course of excavating the roadway.

Our opinion of the way the project was undertaken darkened when we learned that the city engineer who signed off on the project parameters, Ali Marzban, turned out not to be an engineer at all. (He has since left the city’s employ.) Our fears were exacerbated when the city handed the work to Man O’ Trees, a construction firm with no experience handling radiological waste. (Indeed, we received reports that Man O’ Trees was falling behind schedule almost from day one of the project, because the volume and activity level of the radioactive materials was much higher than city officials claimed to anticipate.) The US military and government regulators have stringent rules about the cleanup and handling of radioactive materials such as those found in these Niagara Falls roadways. Why was the city not following those rules, at a bare minimum?

The initial answer to that question is simple: It’s because they would not acknowledge the nature and the volume of the material involved.

With the Lewiston Road project in apparent disarray, it’s tempting to write an I-told-you-so piece. After all, we’ve been doing what we can to chronicle Niagara County’s atomic legacy for 11 years, and warning about these road projects for three. But we’ve got bigger fish to fry, and an even hotter road to fry it on: Buffalo Avenue. SAIC’s study of Buffalo Avenue, where construction is slated to begin this spring, indicates radiation levels as high as 1,000,000 counts per minute. That’s 10 times as hot as Lewiston Road.

Discussions about levels of radiation and the dangers it poses quickly devolve into debates about systems of measurement, what is “natural” and what is “background,” what constitutes exposure, etc. It might therefore be useful to find a simpler context in which to judge the seriousness of the situation in Niagara Falls. The map on the facing page measures exposure rates to radiation in the Ukraine as a result of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. The areas in red measure up to 20 microroentgens per hour. These are the exclusion zones, where people are not supposed to live or travel. The lower range, in blue, is seven microroentgens per hour.

In the mid-1970s, the federal government commissioned a company called EG&G to perform an aerial radiation survey conducted 300 feet above the roadways of Niagara County. The survey identified dozens of hotspots near the Whirlpool, around the golf course, along Lewiston Road and Buffalo Avenue, and elsewhere around the city. Some of these along Lewiston Road peaked at 86 microroentgens per hour. That level of contamination would seem consistent with that detected in subsequent surveys performed by the Oak Ridge National Laboratories and the recent surveys performed by SAIC.

We can all agree that Chernobyl is bad news. When will we take the contamination in Niagara County as seriously?

geoff kelly & louis ricciuti

More frack checking:

On February 8, Buffalo became the first city in New York and the second nationwide to pass a ban on hydraulic fracturing, also called fracking, but communities surrounding the city are still exposed to the potential dangers posed by the technique.

On Sunday, February 20, around 200 residents of Aurora, Wales, and surrounding municipalities communed at the Aurora Town Hall Auditorium for a discussion about what fracking means for them and their communities.

Sarah Buckley, who helped to organize the event, is working on a ban for Wales that is similar to those recently adopted in Buffalo and Pittsburgh. Her goal is to create a coalition that brings community events to other towns. Buckley says her concern grew after a gas pipeline threatened to impinge on her property. “Locally, we’ve already been affected,” she says. “If we can work on this issue regionally that would be very effective.”

June Gustafson of South Wales was present to ask about forced integration, a state policy whereby if 60 percent of the land around a homeowner’s property is leased, the gas companies can drill under the unleased property and get the gas, even if the landowner opposes the drilling.

Some at the event wanted to know how to protect their property from drilling, which lawyers to contact, and how to have their water tested before drilling occurs. Buckley said it costs roughly $1,200 to have water quality analyzed, an expense that fallson the shoulders of the landowner.

“The last three years my family has been getting very sick,” says Springville resident Natalie Brant, whose property is near fracking sites. Brant says her children had to go through brain scans and blood work as a result of contaminated and flammable water that she blames on gas drilling nearby.

stephanie berberick

Trying to get through to a right-wing ideologue? Just say "Koch."

Oh, Beast!

Congratulations to the Buffalo Beast, which demonstrated this week that its best tricks are its oldest: On Tuesday afternoon, editor Ian Murphy manage to get Wisonsin’s right-wing ideologue of a governor, Scott Walker, on the phone by pretending to be billionaire David Koch, who, with his brother Charles, bankroll Tea Partiers and other right-wing causes.

Murphy kept Walker on the line for quite some time, talking about the governor’s strategy to break unions in his state. The entire conversation is available at, though as of Wednesday afternoon, the site seemed overwhelmed by traffic—thanks, no doubt, to attention from the Huffington Post and about a dozen other major media outlets. Nice work, Ian.

geoff kelly

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