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Happy Nuclear Year

Top left: Radiation warning sign at proposed parks police barracks site. Top Right: The remediation site. Bottom: The site as it looked for decades, before radioactive debris was discovered.

Let’s Resolve We Keep Track of Our Radioactive Past

A controversy erupted in Niagara Falls, NY, this year over plans to relocate a New York State Parks Police barracks from Goat Island to a parcel of land behind the Howard Johnson hotel near the rim of the Niagara Gorge and adjacent to the Rainbow Bridge to Canada. Foremost in the controversy was the voice of the Niagara Falls Tourism Advisory Board who felt that from a tourism standpoint the rim of the gorge could be put to much better use than a police barracks. The community, local legislators and the media all took sides with tourism, forcing NYS Parks to back away from the plan. All but ignored in the big hubbub was the fact the site was radioactive.

The land sits near an old exit from the now-defunct section of the Robert Moses Parkway, which is now used for bicycle and pedestrian traffic. In-between that roadway and the parcel runs a paved track used by tourist trolleys. For decades that land was filled with trees, and hikers could explore the seemingly natural oasis as visitors from around the world snapped pictures and listened to multilingual tour guides focus on various points of interest.

The current state park police barracks is housed in a beautiful, old stone structure near the section of Goat Island that includes Terrapin Point and the Cave of the Winds, near the famous bronze statue of Nicola Tesla. That land is now coveted real estate by private firms wanting to operate various hospitality facilities there—hence necessitating the move. State officials disclosed the new location in December 2013.

On June 9, the Buffalo News reported that the proposed barracks location had sparked a controversy among Falls residents. That controversy was fueled by a May story in the Niagara Falls Reporter that dozens of old trees had been cleared from the proposed site, changing the decades-old view, and raising the ire of the Niagara Falls Tourism Advisory Board. State Parks said it wasn’t that good a view of the gorge from the site and pointed out that it had been “previously disturbed by industrial activities.”

On June 13, the Buffalo News reported that State Senator George Maziarz and Assemblyman John D. Ceretto wanted work on the new barracks halted, and had sent a letter to State Parks Commissioner Rose Harvey saying as much.

On June 15, the Buffalo News reported that State officials had announced the suspension of work on the new police barracks. While indicating that a new location was an option that could be considered, and insisting there be an opportunity “for anyone who has anything to say, to say it,” Sam Hoyt, Cuomo appointed WNY Regional president of Empire State Development Corporation went on to stress that “Beyond public meetings, there were meetings with individual leaders, including mayors, state assemblymen, state senators. Nothing was done in a vacuum.” He also revealed that the state wanted to move the current police station on Goat Island because that land is needed for a planned expansion of the Cave of the Winds, and choosing a new police barracks site might cause a delay in that work. The Cave of the Winds is currently run by Delaware North Companies.

Besides running the Cave of the Winds, the politically connected Delaware North has exclusive rights to operate all the food booths, ice cream stands and the Top of the Falls restaurant in the Niagara Falls State Park. The Niagara Falls Reporter astutely noted that the day after his primary victory Governor Cuomo was honored at a fundraising event at Delaware North owner Jeremy Jacobs’s opulent East Aurora estate.

In the same June 15 Buffalo News article, Lisa Vitello, Chairwoman of the Niagara Falls Tourism Advisory Board, claimed she had attended a daytime meeting on December 9, 2013 that drew only a half-dozen people. Hoyt said there was “a very robust and comprehensive public outreach effort,” while NYS Parks spokesman Randy Simons pointed out that the law didn’t require any public meetings at all. Simons was also quoted saying remediation work on the site “may have to continue.” He characterized the land as a former industrial landfill and said: “There are materials in the ground we want to get out of there.”

On June 22, the Buffalo News ran a column praising the State for being responsive to the concerns of the public by listening to pleas not to build the barracks on the site, thereby reversing the harm done with the construction of the Robert Moses Parkway fifty years ago, and preserving a chance to connect the public with the gorge.

On July 18, the Buffalo News reported that a tentative arrangement had been reached for a new site for the police barracks, on New York Power Authority land that had previously been promised to the city. Of the change in course, Hoyt said: “The people spoke. We wish they had spoken more loudly.” Simons lamented that the state spent about $1 million on the “false start.” He added that the proposed, and now abandoned barracks site “is now cleaned up.” The oddity is that state environmental officials had turned over the “cleanup” to the parks department. In addition, the public was never made aware through public notice or any meetings specific to radioactive contamination at the site.

It was in this July 18 article that one sentence touched upon the nature of the cleanup: “Radioactive slag was found on the gorge site, similar to that discovered beneath Lewiston Road when the City of Niagara Falls had that street reconstructed a few years ago.”

Invisible, odorless, tasteless threat

On July 10, 2014, attorneys Knauf Shaw LLP filed a Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) Request with both the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, broadly requesting all documents, communications, reports and maps related to radioactive material and other contamination at the proposed site.

Documents Knauf Shaw received included results of radiological surveys of the proposed barracks site conducted on September 24 and October 9, 2013 by Brydges Environment Engineering Energy (BE3), located at 33 Washington Highway, Amherst, NY. Readings at the site registered 5,800 counts per minute (cpm) gamma radiation. CPM (counts per minute) is a unit of measurement for a Geiger counter to detect radioactive material. “Based upon similar local sites and knowledge of background radiation in Western New York, BE3 indicated that these readings are average regional background levels,” according to the report.

Most radiological professionals know that “natural” radiation rates should be within the range of five to 50 counts per minute on a survey instrument. However, many places in Niagara County have significantly higher rates of background radiation due to the area’s long legacy and history of producing radioactive materials for the U.S. Army’s World War II Manhattan Project and subsequent nuclear activities. Parts of the Alcoa Aluminum Company and Bell Aerospace use to have manufacturing facilities, including metal-smelting operations directly uphill from the area where the barracks was proposed.

“Hot spots” were noted at over twice the already skewed level of 5,800 cpm in the initial survey of the proposed barracks site. Subsequent testing revealed areas registering as high as 52,415 cpm and 64,164 cpm. Maps prepared for Parsons Brinkerhoff by BE3 show these red-hot areas to be just feet from the paved path where the tourist trolleys run, and covered-over not far below the surface where people would hike and picnic under the trees—until they were recently cut down for construction of the proposed barracks. It is unknown how many decades these dangerously radioactive specimens had been buried there or exactly where else on this previously historic industrial site other similar materials may be present. Various metals were smelted on the original ALCOA site, including the same offending radioactive metals once used by Bell Aerospace that are being found less than 100 yards downhill, and along a natural drainage path between these old sites.

Invisible, odorless, tasteless clean up

Exceedingly detailed clean up plans dated January 14, 2014, outlining the requirements for removing the dangerous material at the police barracks site were obtained by Knauf Shaw through the FOIL process. The question is: Were these requirements followed or ignored? The scope of such a project is very precise when it comes to the excavation and handling of such radioactive materials—known as Technologically-Enhanced Naturally Occurring Radioactive Material (TENORM). There has to be a Radiation Safety Officer and a Health Safety Officer, protocols for the inspection of equipment and materials, site layout and setup, equipment staging and decontamination areas, and so on.

It was estimated that “approximately 450 tons of impacted slag-like debris will be excavated from the previously identified ‘hot spots’ and transported off-site for proper disposal.”

The plan called for excavating the dangerously radioactive debris and “Once removed from the ground and verified as elevated radioactive material, the slag-like material can either be directly loaded into (1) off-site transportation vehicles (e.g., 20-24 ton dump trailers) for immediate disposal out of New York state, or (2) on-site dump trucks for placement into a staging area for eventual off-site disposal.”

There is then a detailed process for demobilization of heavy equipment used on the site, including decontamination. “The project close out can only occur when hard copies of the waste manifests, disposal records, survey results, daily field reports/notes/inspections, and results of field verification sampling to the Owner’s Representative at the completion of field activities. This documentation should be complete prior to delivery, unless directed otherwise by Owner’s Representative. Please note that final certificates of disposal, or fully executed waste manifests from the disposal company for all waste transported off-site, is required for the project documents to be complete,” according to the January, 2014 site operations plan.

So where is the reciept?

When Linda Shaw of Knauf Shaw followed up with the DEC on July 30, 2014, to check on the status of the cleanup, DEC Regional Remediation Engineer Gregory P. Sutton replied that he did not know if the radioactive pile of dirt that had been unearthed was still on the site. Following up again on December 5, 2014, requesting manifests showing where the material was moved to and any final report as to the status of the site, he responded via email:

As far as I know DEC had limited involvement with this project other than insuring that NYS Parks followed State policy for the disposal of this material at an out of state disposal facility. In addition, because it is not considered a hazardous waste there would be no manifests generated for its transport and disposal.

Therefore I would refer you to the appropriate State Park’s representative below, who was handling this project, for the information you have requested”.

Frank McCue

Assistant Deputy Commissioner

Capital Programs

Sorry I could not have been of more assistance.


On December 8, McCue, via email, directed Shaw to forward a fresh FOIL request to the NYS Parks Department.

When Artvoice reached out to the general contractor (Scott Lawn Yard), the construction manager (LiRo Engineering), and the monitoring company (BE3) for comment, all three said they were under strict directions not to speak to any members of the press regarding the job. All three directed us to Angela Berti, spokesperson for the Niagara Falls State Park—which seemed like an incomprehensible agency to be placed as the lead of a radioactive cleanup.

Berti never responded to repeated phone messages and emails for comment.

Finally, at the Albany level, State Parks spokesperson Randy Simons explained that the cleanup had been completed in November. When asked to clarify his July 18 comment to the Buffalo News indicating that the site had already been cleaned up, he explained that the radioactive stuff had only been dug up from the ground at that point.

When asked if he could provide copies of the trucking manifests showing that all the material had been shipped out of state for proper disposal, he emailed a copy of a single manifest showing that a company called US Bulk Transport of Erie, PA moved 22 tons of non-regulated material (soil/slag with NORM and TENORM) to Wayne Disposal of Belleville, MI on September 15, 2014. Where are the other 428 tons of radioactive slag?

An October 24, 2014 story in the Detroit Free Press describes how Wayne Disposal had withdrawn its request to state regulators that it be allowed to increase its radiation limits tenfold in order to accept up to 36 tons of radioactive fracking sludge from a Pennsylvania oil and gas company that had already been refused by landfills in Pennsylvania and West Virginia. While waiting on its request, the Detroit Free Press reported on a history of violations, leaks and fires at the Wayne Disposal landfill.

Artvoice has filed a FOIL request with the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation for documents that should illustrate what actually happened to all of the 450 tons of radioactive soil that was discovered and downplayed this past summer on the American side of the Niagara Gorge. So far, that office has been unwilling to provide the answer to a simple question: 450 tons of radioactive slag was removed. Where was it put?

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