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The Bombs Keep Dropping

Radioactive wastes leak from containment structure, but no worries—the water’s fine

If there are benefits to being a birthplace of the atom bomb, Niagara Falls got stiffed.. (illustration: Zachary Burns)

The 64th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki—August 6 and 9, 1945—will scarcely be marked in Western New York: A moment of silence was observed at the Japanese gardens in Delaware Park on Wednesday evening, followed by a screening of Hiroshima-Nagasaki August 1945, a short film by Erik Barnouw made from footage shot by a Japanese film crew immediately after the bombings. But that’s about it.

We have reason to make more of it: The chemical and metallurgical industries in Niagara Falls were instrumental to the Manhattan Project, which created the first atomic bombs. This region was at one time the free world’s leading producer of uranium metal for use in weapons and reactors—and, it follows, the leading producer of the deadly wastes that attend the refinement process. Avast amount of that waste was dumped cavalierly on a 12-square-mile federal reserve called the Lake Ontario Ordnance Works (LOOW) that straddles the towns of Lewiston and Porter. In the mid 1980s, those wastes that could be recovered were consolidated in the concrete basements of several demolished structures and capped. The resulting “interim waste containment structure”—intended to solve the problem of those high-energy radioactive wastes for no more than 25 years, while the federal government decided what to do about the problem—is located on 191 acres called the Niagara Falls Storage Site (NFSS), which belongs to the Department of Energy and is maintained by the US Army Corps of Engineers. The structure holds one of the world’s largest concentrations of radium-226, as well as plutonium, uranium, thorium, and other dangerous materials, some of which remain unidentified or under-identified, according to the Corps.

So Western New Yorkers, and especially residents of Niagara County, live with their own legacy of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And here’s news with which to mark this year’s anniversary: Two weeks ago, Dr. Joseph Gardella, a chemist at the University at Buffalo, announced that the Corps’ monitoring reports indicate that the containment structure is leaking uranium into the groundwater.

Gardella is chairman of the Lake Ontario Ordnance Works Restoration Advisory Board, a body that is intended to provide the Corps with public input on cleanup and maintenance of the wastes on the site. The Corps last year announced that it would no longer take into account the board’s deliberations, and denies now that there is any evidence that the structure is leaking.

But there has been evidence for many years that the waste on the site is not fully contained. In 1988, Environment Canada reported finding plutonium in the western basin of the lake and at the mouth of the Niagara River, just offshore of Youngstown. Extensive analysis was conducted to find the origin of the plutonium, and some argue that it traveled more than 100 miles by water from the nuclear waste site in West Valley, but it seems more logical to think that it migrated through the ditches and groundwater from the LOOW site just a few miles away. (For many years, the Corps denied that there was plutonium present on the former LOOW site; they reversed that position in 2002, after reports in this paper.) The containment structure is not lined, and it was only built to last 25 years. And not all of the waste on the former LOOW made it into the containment structure; in an interview last year, the Corps described radioactive wastes currently stored in Building 401, a structure still standing on the NFSS that the Corps says was part of a powerhouse. Those wastes had not previously been acknowledged.

Both the Corps and the RAB say that the wastes stored at the NFSS present no imminent hazard to human health, but that’s hardly a unanimous opinion. In sworn testimony, Dr. Judith Leithner of the Corps of Engineers admitted she would fear for her life if she lived within one mile of the NFSS. Dr. Janette Sherman, a former EPA toxicologist, and Dr. Rosalie Bertell, a globally recognized environmental epidemiologist, have called the health consequences of the NFSS wastes “manifest” and said it’s long past time that human health studies took precedence over environmental sampling. The most current science maintains that there is no such thing as a safe level of exposure to radiological contamination, whether from so-called “low-level” or “high-level” wastes.

The water table in Lewiston Porter is active and near the surface, and the LOOW site is criss-crossed with old pipes and drainage ditches that facilitate the movement of water. If the NFSS is leaking, this memorial to the first atomic bombs is moving quickly.

In the meantime, another memorial is soon to be eradicated: US Congresswoman Louise Slaughter recently announced the allocation of $1.3 million for a new cleanup of the former LOOW site, which may include the demolition of Building 401 and a former wastewater treatment plant that was deeded by the federal government to the Town of Lewiston.

geoff kelly & louis ricciuti

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