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Paved With Good Intentions
by Geoff Kelly and Louis Ricciuti
How the Lewiston Road reconstruction (or is it remediation?) project went straight to hell
David Pfeiffer, known almost universally as Bear, is giving a visitor a tour of what was once Fentier Village, a Wild West amusement park perched on a hill overlooking the city of Salamanca that opened in 1966 and closed a few years later. Once there were fake gunfights between fake cowboys, fake Indians, a cable incline and a miniature railroad, a town hall and a saloon, a chapel and a schoolhouse. Lassie once made a guest appearance.
What is left is a shell of a sports bar, which Pfeiffer intends to resuscitate, alongside a high-end restaurant, with a pool and facilities for RVs where the Indian village once stood. The hickory in one part of the restaurant will be extended throughout. The old red and white schoolhouse, the last reminder of Fentier Village, will become a shop for RV campers. Pfeiffer has a clear vision, and as he conducts the tour he shouts out instructions to his workers. “Listen to me loud and clear,” he says, and describes how a stage for musical acts and weddings will be integrated with a barroom. “Do you see what I’m telling you?”
But the predominant topic of conversation on this tour is not the resort he intends to build; it’s the bag of snakes of a road reconstruction project his company has abandoned in Niagara Falls, 80 miles to the north, a city in which a place like Fentier Village would once have seemed perfectly of a piece: kitschy, sensational, the product of a crazy and uniquely American postwar ambition.
In 2008, Pfeiffer’s company, Man O’ Trees, won a bid to reconstruct completely the section of Lewiston Road that runs through the city of Niagara Falls. (The Man O’ Trees bid, at $7.7 million, was $1.3 million lower than the next qualified bidder; Pfeiffer says his company often comes in low because he owns equipment that many of his competitors must rent.) The project was complicated by the fact that some sections of the roadbed comprised a variety of radioactive waste materials, somewhat disingenuously described with the catchall term “slag,” some of which was very hot: A study produced by the mammoth national defense contractor SAIC, which was used by the engineering firm Wendel to design the Lewiston Road reconstruction project, indicated that some of the “slag” registered 100,000 counts per minute on a Geiger counter, more than 100 times what is—again, disingenuously—described as “normal background” levels of radiation for the area. (Natural radiation in the region emitted by soil and the local geology should range between five and 50 counts per minute.)
The project, 80 percent of which was paid for with federal highway funds, seemed star-crossed before a shovel touched the ground. Wendel, the engineering firm, had no health physicists on staff to evaluate the SAIC study in the context of the unique legacy left by Niagara Falls’s chemical and metallurgical industries; the city engineer who signed off on Wendel’s project design and on the Man O’ Trees bid, Ali Marzban, turned out to have been unlicensed and was subsequently fired; Man O’Trees lacked a state permit to excavate and dispose of radiological waste and so was forced to miss a construction season while obtaining it.
When work finally began, things went south very quickly: Wendel had predicted 550 cubic yards of radioactive waste material; by November 2011 Man O’ Trees had excavated 1,660 cubic yards of radioactive waste material, all of which, according to an internal Wendel document, fell “within project limits,” adding nearly $3 million to the cost of the project.
Pfeiffer says, and state officials confirm, that his crew came across material that registered as high as 140,000 counts per minute. The trail of this waste extended beyond the roadway and sidewalks on to private property. Pfeiffer claims that there is much more and even hotter material that Wendel’s supervising engineers told him to leave in the ground because the cost of removing and shipping the material to an out-of-state landfill was outstripping the project’s budget and scope.
Pfeiffer maintains that his license from the state Department of Health to handle and dispose of radioactive waste and his own conscience obligated him to address any and all waste his crew uncovered; Wendel and officials from city government and the state Department of Environmental Conservation accuse him of chasing radioactive material outside the project’s scope to pad his contract with overrun costs. At the end of last year’s construction season, Man O’ Trees essentially walked off the job, frustrated that they were not being paid for the excavation they’d done and, according to Pfeiffer, that they were being told to leave in the ground radioactive material above the already artificially elevated background threshold of 9,000 counts per minute. City officials and Wendel—whose share of the contract more than doubled from $1.395 million to $3.8 million—accused Man O’ Trees of doing shoddy work.
All parties are trashing each other publicly; all parties have lawyered up. The money is all gone and the road project is incomplete.
If it really was, or really should have been, ever considered a road project. Pfeiffer maintains, and the SAIC study used to design the project suggests, that Lewiston Road ought to have been treated as a remediation project from day one.
We hate to say we told you so…
…but what the hell: We told you so.
As far back as May 2008, this paper has argued that the Lewiston Road reconstruction project—as well as the pending Buffalo Avenue reconstruction project, where SAIC found material 10 times as hot as that in Lewiston Road—would open a scary can of worms. Here’s what we wrote back then:
From Lewiston to Lockport to the Falls, public works projects continue to run into the stubborn legacy of the Manhattan Project and the industries it spawned here. That legacy includes massive quantities of radiological material in a leaky containment structure on the former Lake Ontario Ordnance Works (LOOW), persistent radiological contamination issues at landfills throughout the county as well as at undocumented disposal sites no one will ever know about for certain, defunct industrial sites that continue to poison the surrounding neighborhoods decades after their abandonment, and all the attendant effects on human health and the economy.
Another legacy is road materials corrupted by what officials like to call “industrial slag,” but which might be more usefully termed derivative uranium products, the waste cast off in the process of refining uranium for weapons and reactors.
We revisited the issue again and again, arguing that the material would be hotter, more copious, and more various in origin than the project’s design indicated. We provided city officials with studies from the 1970s and early 1980s that suggested the “slag” in the roadbed was not exclusively cyclowollastonite, a by-product of phosphate production, and the natural emissions of brick and granite, as city and state officals maintained. In February 2011, when we learned that the Lewiston Road project was $1.4 million over budget and months behind schedule, we noted, not for the first time, that 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 hotsspots along Lewiston Road peaked at more than four times an exclusion zone surrounding the Chernobyl nuclear reactor disaster. The EG&G findings are consistent with subsequent surveys performed by the Oak Ridge National Laboratories and those performed by SAIC.
The use of the term “slag” to diminish concerns about radioactive waste dates back to the 1940s, which is exactly the era when industries in Niagara Falls engaged the growing federal demand for the production and refinement of uranium and other radioactive materials. All past and present “slag” explanations are based upon a conclusion drawn almost 67 years ago about the phosphate-based material, cyclowollastonite, offered as a means of establishing plausible deniability by a chemical engineer named B. M. Robinson, assigned to the Tonawanda Area Office of the Manhattan Project, in a document titled “To Files, Comments on residues and by-product, November 29, 1945.”
In the late 1970s, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, in documents related to another radiologically contaminated site—in this case the Rapids Family Bowling Center and Dunn Tire on Niagara Falls Boulevard and 95th Street—referenced Niagara Falls “slag” in this way: “…a more scientific investigation to establish this fact [cyclowollastonite slag] may be needed to completely establish the fact that this material is indeed slag and not another [radioactive] substance.”
“Slag” remains the default term of art used to describe waste material targeted in any number of recent quiet cleanups in and around Niagara Falls.
Consider this list of sites that, like Lewiston Road, have been recently, or will be soon, quietly relieved of “slag”:
• Air Force Plant #38 in Porter, once the site for experimental work in everything from rocket engineering and chemistry to space communications. Still secret and above public scrutiny or oversight.
• The Aqua Falls property in Niagara Falls, a.k.a. the Occidental Building, a.k.a. the Flash Cube, where a hole was dug for a never-built aquarium, then filled with questionable dirt fill from beside the train tracks along Lockport Road in the Town of Niagara. The dirt is alleged to have come from a Niagara County sewer project dig, and some records indicate it was associated with atomic industries.
• Niagara Falls International Airport and Air Force Reserve Base, home to radiological contamination from past weapons maintenance and other activities both on and off government property. Congresswoman Kathy Hochul recently announced funding for runway re-paving. Sound familiar?
• A proposed Aldi’s market on the site of the Niagara Falls Abate Elementary School and public library, which was dug up and paved over after a historic radiological contamination problem was brought to light in 2005, then made into a neighborhood basketball facility.
• Artpark in Lewiston, where recent construction was halted due to the discovery of lead, an end-state decay indicator of radioactive materials. Artpark was built on fill provided from power project construction in the early 1960s, including soils from industrial areas known to have handled mass amounts of radioactive metals and ore tailings.
• The Bell Aerospace facility in Wheatfield, contaminated with radioactive metal and chemical materials, site of experiments involving burning of radioactive materials. Downwind deposition, soils and groundwater contamination.
• Bloody Run in Niagara Falls, in the area surrounding Titanium Alloys Manufacturing, contaminated with radioactive metals and chemicals from experiments and production of same.
• Building #401 on the former Lake Ontario Ordnance Works site, in Lewiston-Porter, a suspicious “emergency demolition” paid for with federal stimulus dollars. A historically significant building with a checkered past and potential involvement in the ongoing investigation into how and where Israel obtained material and expertise to create a nuclear arsenal.
• Carborundum site on Buffalo Avenue. Midnight demolition of an industrial location where historic experiments with plutonium radiological compounded materials occurred. Paved into a parking lot with no study, analysis, public meetings, or fanfare.
• DeVeaux Campus, Woods and State Park, on Lewiston Road in Niagara Falls. This real estate was passed around like a hot potato, and finally transferred from Niagara University to the State of New York for a park. Historic buildings and grounds turn up on the EG&G radiological aerial survey maps as being contaminated. The buildings once housed an orphanage, boys school, and quasi-military cadet boarding school.
• The site of the new Norampac paper mill in Niagara Falls, from which 20,000 tons of radioactively contaminated soils were recently removed and shipped out of state for disposal. (That’s the same amount of contaminated material that triggered the Love Canal crisis.) No public meetings or prior disclosure.
• Reservoir State Park, City of Niagara Falls/Town of Niagara. There was a recent “upgrade” of the park under a state contract. Contamination on the perimeter of the park appears on radiological survey maps as early as the 1980s, or before. The park is due downwind of known and designated Atomic Energy Employers and the site of suspicious waste disposals.
• The Seneca Niagara Casino location, once the site of a radioactive aircraft dial/indicator manufacturing company. (Think Radium Girls.) Nearby canals that were filled in during urban renewal development and before were used as disposal pits throughout downtown Niagara Falls.
• Tract II development properties on Highland Avenue in Niagara Falls. Radiological materials were discovered here this year. The property sold for one dollar to a family member of a local waste magnate.
• US Customs House/Train Station on Whirlpool Street, beside the Whirlpool Bridge. The trains that used this bridge carried historically significant atomic materials to and from Canada. It was a checkpoint for the assay of radioactive ores during the Manhattan Project. Documents suggest New York Area “Office of Import/Export” used as cover story and address. Copious lead found beneath the bridge triggered a quiet cleanup.
• TAM/Titanium Alloys/Ferro Electronics property, Niagara Falls. Past Atomic Energy Employer, with known and suspected burials of waste. Suspicious subsidies and recent land movement, displacements and disturbances. Some documents indicate 50 times “normal background” radioactivity in back of the property, which was recently sold to a family member of a local waste magnate.
• Willow Avenue, Niagara Falls. Thorium contamination indicated on a radiological survey map “disappeared” during “routine” city streets maintenance, milling, and re-paving. Should this trigger a “loose thorium alert” to determine site or sites that were used for disposal to limit further spread? Was this material buried or dispersed?
• Finally, Buffalo Avenue, Niagara Falls.Deconstruction, decontamination, and reconstruction completely analogous to the Lewiston Road project, except with radioactive materials 10 times hotter, according to the SAIC study. About to begin with no public hearings, no independent sampling or analysis.
When Bear Pfeiffer understood how bulloxed the Lewiston Road job had become, he decided he’d better start collecting material for the record that would buttress his position. As part of that effort, he recorded a conversation he had with Evan Casey, president of Great Lakes Environmental & Safety Consultants, who was familiar with the project. Casey did not know he was being recorded until the end of the conversation.
Asked if he viewed the Lewiston Road project as a road job or a remediation job, Casey affirmed that it was a remediation job. He affirmed that personnel from Wendel, specifically consulting engineer Cliff Elwood, instructed Man O’ Trees workers to leave material that read higher that 9,000 counts per minute in the ground if it did not exhibit “slag-like…characteristics.” Casey confirmed that Wendel insisted that Man O’ Trees ignore hotspots that they encountered just outside the project footprint—in people’s yards, for example. He confirmed that the curb in front of the MiniMart at Willow Avenue was smoking hot: Pfeiffer recalled that it read 60,000 counts per minute.
After our last article on the Lewiston Road project, in which we referred to the SAIC studies of Lewiston Road and Buffalo Avenue, as well as to some older radiological surveys of the region, a fellow named Ben Sorgi called Artvoice to ask if we could provide him copies of those studies. At first he was a bit cagey about his occupation and his specific interest in the issue, but eventually Sorgi allowed that he worked for MJW Corporation, which was under contract to monitor radiological waste uncovered by utility companies that were doing underground work in concert with the Lewiston Road and other area projects.
Sorgi said MJW was considering doing work on the upcoming Buffalo Avenue project, too, and he was alarmed by the numbers we’d cited from the SAIC report, which he’d never seen. The “background” level of 9,000 counts per minute seemed fine to Sorgi, but the idea that SAIC had found something as hot as 1,000,000 counts per minute concerned him.
“For an aerial or even an overland survey to have picked up something that hot for stuff that’s five, six, seven feet underground, that’s a lot,” he said. “Even if it’s 25,000 to 30,000 counts per minute, that’s reason to wonder what’s down there.”
Sorgi was familiar with the breakdown of the Lewiston Road project. He told us that he believed Man O’ Trees was in over its head from the start. “They had no background” in handling radioactive material, he said.
But the contractor’s inexperience was hardly the only problem. Sorgi recalled an incident in which a group of politicians gathered beside the Whirlpool Bridge to make a public relations visit and proclamation about the project. Man O’ Trees was excavating nearby, and ordinarily there would be signs on the perimeter of the work site warning of the radiation hazard. But Sorgi says that someone forced Man O’ Trees to take down those signs during the politicians’ visit. “I don’t think they wanted it getting out at the state or federal level that this problem was there, and was so close,” Sorgi said.
This confirms something Pfeiffer said as he sat at the empty bar at the old Fentier Village. He said that Wendel, the engineering firm, had told his crew to take down radiation hazard signs and prohibited his workers from wearing radiation exposure badges. Pfeiffer says Wendel and city officials wanted to keep the issue of radiological waste under wraps.
Why? Pfeiffer thinks it’s because Lewiston Road passes through the city’s well-to-do DeVeaux neighborhood, one of the city’s most fashionable. He thinks the motive is as base as a desire to protect property values.
So what will be the motive if the Buffalo Avenue project is allowed to proceed in the same disastrous way as the Lewiston Road project? That road comprises a major part of the region’s historic atomic legacy, where some of the hottest and most dangerous materials were created, treated, and disposed of in pits and injection wells. Several of the most famous facilities along that dusty industrial corridor have been recently demolished and they themselves and carted away to landfills. The evidence scraped away.
The road to hell
Lewiston Road, we are told again and again, is a road project; its funding source precludes remediation of the kind that Man O’ Trees and Bear Pfeiffer insisted on performing. (Leave aside any question of Pfeiffer’s motives: It doesn’t matter whether he pursued radioactive material zealously in order to make more money, or in order to minimize his liability should residents or his workers get sick as a result of exposure to radiation, or because he believes his state license required him to do so, or because he felt it was the ethical thing to do, or some combination of all these.) But if the Lewiston Road project walks like a quiet cleanup, if it quacks and swims like a quiet, expedient, convenient cleanup, and if there are other quiet cleanups in the recent past and future, then maybe—just maybe—it’s a cleanup project disguised as a road project.
Maybe the intentions of the project’s sponsor’s were good: The road needed reconstruction, and the waste needed remediation, and here was a pot of federal highway money to tap. But the undergirding lie has undone both goals: The road is unfinished, at least until the city finds the money to hire a new contractor to button up the job; and that new contractor will leave in place all the contaminated material that Man O’ Trees insists remains in the roadway and even in the yards of private residences in the surrounding neighborhoods.
In the meantime, residents and commuters have taken unnecessary doses of ionizing radiation. And don’t be fooled by the characterization of the source materials of those doses as “low-level” radioactive waste. There is no such thing as a safe dose of ionizing radiation. Consider this comment from the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, on the Biological Effects of Ionizing Radiation committee-five report (BEIR V) regarding exposures to radiation:
The Committee cautions that the risk estimates presented here should in no way be interpreted as precise numerical expectations. They are based on incomplete data and involve a large degree of uncertainty, especially when applied to interpretation of health effects of low doses. These estimates may well change as new information becomes available.
The BEIR V report has since been replaced by the even more stringent BEIR VII report, issued by the National Academy of Sciences.
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