March 1, 2011

Welcome to Chernobyl at Niagara Falls

What does the Ukraine have in common with Niagara County, New York? We hear that Pripyat is wonderful this time of the year.

There are more than 100 spots (not counting landfills of more than one-trillion pounds and other radioactive burials at Niagara County) with similar activities spread around Niagara Falls streets, industrial sectors and private properties. For comparison please see:

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.
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 Science Applications International Corporation (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 survey meter, 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 right 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 (20 mR/h). These are the exclusion zones, where people are not supposed to live or travel. The lower range, in blue, is seven micro- roentgens per hour mR/h.
In the mid-1970s, the federal government commissioned a company called Edgerton, Germeshausen, and Grier, Inc., (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 peaked at 86 microroentgens per hour (with other, higher rates expected on the Buffalo Avenue project). 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?

Submitted by Geoff Kelly, Louis Ricciuti & Stephanie Berberick


sundayniagara said...

This subject has been debated ad nauseum in the old Gazette forums by many people vs one of this story's authors, who is considered a fountain of mis-information and lacks the qualifications to write such a story.

Lewport said...

Seriously Hobbes,
Nuclear Lou and company???
This is a self-proclaimed Nuclear Physicist - where did he get his degree, the Sally Struthers teach yourself at home course?

sundayniagara said...

Bobby "The Brain" Heenan is more qualified!