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Seven Days: The Straight Dope From the Week That Was

A Shovelful of Thorium

Thorite - decent fuel for nuclear reactors, bad construction fill.

A couple weeks ago, the Town of Niagara Board approved a special use permit allowing Gene’s Wholesale, at 2924 Military Road, to expand. Gene Colucci, the owner of the business, which specializes in car tires and sound systems, wants to build a 4,500-square-foot garage behind its current building. All well and good—except that nothing is all well and good when shovels get ready to break ground in Niagara County, one of the cradles of the nation’s nuclear industry and the resting place of its attendant waste products. Indeed, turns out that 2924 Military Road was identified way back in the late 1970s as a radioactive hotspot in a study performed for the Oak Ridge National Laboratories. A flyover survey identified the future site of Gene’s Wholesale as contaminated with radioactive material, and subsequent soil samples found high concentration of the radioactive metal thorium. The presence of thorium waste is especially troubling, as it most certainly is the product of nuclear reactor fuel or weapons work, and has been identified as such in previous reports.

Bear in mind that, thanks to the standards set by the US Department of Energy and Nuclear Regulatory Commission in the 1970s, what’s considered a “normal” range of radioactivity around here is roughly equivalent to that of the radiologically contaminated uranium mining town of Grand Junction, Colorado. For an anomaly identified in the Oak Ridge report to stand out against such an unnatural “background,” it must be very hot indeed.

Thorium poses a significant health risk, especially if it is disturbed and loosed into the air as construction dust, where it might be breathed by workers, neighbors, and passersby. However the material that popped into view during Oak Ridge’s study 30-odd years ago came to rest there—fill material? illicit dumping?—it was almost certainly produced under government contract and absolutely disposed of illegally. There is no record of the site having been remediated. Louis Ricciuti, a researcher who studies the history of Niagara County’s embrace of the nuclear industry and a frequent contributor to this newspaper, brought the Oak Ridge study and various supporting material to the attention of Town of Niagara board member Rob Clark, who says that he passed the material on to town engineers and attorneys. The approval of the expansion plan for Gene’s Wholesale, Clark says, is contingent upon the findings of those engineers and attorneys. We’ll keep you posted on that.

This Oak Ridge study, which identifies dozens upon dozens of radioactive anomalies in western Niagara County, including the City of Niagara Falls, is more than 30 years old. Before Ricciuti alerted Clark to the possible environmental issues at 2924 Military Road, the construction project at Gene’s Wholesale was poised to sail through the approval process with no environmental questions asked. This has happened before at other hotspots: Rapids Family Bowling Center, Dunn Tire, Lewiston Road, Buffalo Avenue, and numerous forgotten factory grounds and private residences. All included in previous federal reports.

Shouldn’t someone in some local, state, or federal government agency do a little due diligence before shovels break ground in Niagara County—or anywhere in Western New York—given what we know about the region’s industrial legacy? Given that decades ago the federal government saw fit to give us at least a partial map of Niagara’s more egregious hotspots? Shouldn’t we at least check before digging, as we would for gas, cable, or a Native American burial ground?

- geoff kelly

Meanwhile, in D District:

Now that the Buffalo Police Benevolent Association has won a court order granting them permission to conduct their own independent environmental testing of the D District Station—over a month after the building’s air ducts were cleaned and filters replaced—it may be too late to get an accurate snapshot of the air quality as it was when officers began reporting respiratory problems and, in some cases, lymphoma.

One local researcher suggests that the smoking gun in this scenario may be something decidedly more lethal than the dangerous black mold that was discovered in the building when the city conducted its initial tests. According to Louis Ricciuti, a property just across the train tracks from the station played a major role in the Manhattan Project, the top-secret project that produced the first atomic weapons.

Dating back to 1942, Linde Air Products used uranium ores they’d refined in their Tonawanda plant at their other facility on Chandler Street in Buffalo, 1,000 feet from the site of the D District building. There they experimented with the first gaseous diffusion process equipment to separate the uranium-235 that was used in bombs like “Little Boy,” which was dropped on Hiroshima.

The site continued to be used by defense contractors up until 2005, when the second of two arson fires left the structure unsalvageable. It was quickly demolished, and EPA tests of the remediated land indicate it is relatively “clean” today.

However, what couldn’t be measured were the substances released into the air as the three-alarm inferno raged. According to records of the fire, the D District Station was right in line with the prevailing wind direction, and would have been inundated with smoke sucked in through the filters drawing air from outside.

An inventory of hazardous substances consumed by the fire includes 550 gallons of methyl ethyl ketone, 346 gallons of toluene—both highly flammable—along with 13 gallons of ammonia hydroxide, which is considered toxic and corrosive, and 55 gallons of a substance called trichloroethane, a carcinogen. It’s considered toxic to the lungs, liver, nervous system, heart, and mucous membranes. Asbestos, also a carcinogen, would have been released by both fires too.

- buck quigley

Take a Seat, Bill

This week local attorney Bill Trezevant attended his first meeting as a board member of Erie Regional Housing Development Corporation, the body that manages Marine Drive Apartments and the Belle Center. But he had to fight to take his seat. Trezevant was appointed to the board by Ellicott District Councilman Curtis Haynes, who beat out Trezevant and a slew of other applicants for the vacancy created by the resignation of Brian Davis.

The Council’s Ellicott District representative is allowed to appoint one board member to ERHDC. But ERHDC’s board chair, Michael Rivera, was reluctant to accept Trezevant’s appointment. Rivera insisted that Trezevant must provide a resume and prove his residency, and that the board must interview him and vote whether or not to approve his appointment.

Not so, Trezevant wrote in a letter to Rivera:

Contrary to your assertion, there is no residency requirement. There is no resume requirement. There is no Board sponsored interview requirement. There is no Board Approval requirement. There is no other requirement other than the current Ellicott District Council Member making an appointment.

Thus, my appointment was effective February 19, 2010, the date of Council Member Haynes’s appointment letter. On this point, I will simply point out to you that our meeting today is a less than auspicious start to my service on this Board.

Trezevant went on to ask Rivera to provide him with a complete reckoning of ERHDC’s financial statements, contracts, employee records, policies, and board meeting minutes.

- geoff kelly

Selling McCarley Gardens

A press conference is scheduled for Monday, April 5, at 11am at the B.W. Smith Family Life Center, 833 Michigan Avenue, concerning the sale of HUD-subsidized McCarley Gardens to UB. At press time, UB was still cagey about confirming the date, but Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes’s office confirmed it was on her calendar.

McCarley, home to 150 moderate-income families, was built on 15 acres of land that has the misfortune of resting under the footprint of the proposed Buffalo-Niagara Medical Campus.

Based on a long list of signatures collected from residents opposed to the deal, Sam Radford, co-chair of the Millions More Movement Black Local Action Committee (BLAC), says his group is rallying to support the residents. “Our role is to advocate for people who feel their voice has not been heard,” he says. “We want to make sure that the politicians and the preachers and the university and all the big voices that normally get heard don’t drown out the voice of the people who are directly affected by the decisions that are being made.”

Among their concerns is the legality of the Oak-Michigan Housing Development Fund Company (the entity that owns McCarley) breaking off a 2005 contract with HUD, in which they agreed to continue operating the well-maintained complex as low-income housing for another 20 years. HUD would have to approve such a sale, and Oak-Michigan CEO Michael Chapman, who is also the Pastor of St. John Baptist Church, adjacent to the apartments, has yet to put in such a request.

Sources say the deal could be for as much as $75 million from the UB Foundation.

- buck quigley

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