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WHAT LIES BENEATH? Start Here to Learn What's Buried Near You (part II)


I wish I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard someone say “I can only imagine what’s buried in THAT landfill,” or “I wonder what poisons are flowing through THAT creek.” Or, worse, “we’re probably living on top of a dump and don’t even know it.”

I’d be a rich woman.

So, instead of nodding my head in agreement about the unknowables, I’ve adopted another response: Let’s find out. Let’s stop wondering.

Let’s start researching.

Some of the answers we seek are readily available. We just don’t know where to look. Or we don’t have time to research. And even if we do nose around and find some documents, we don’t comprehend their technical terms or nature. We might recognize that information is somewhat worrisome, but we question whether we should be that concerned—as my teens like to say, is this a “thing?”

Yes, educating ourselves about potential environmental threats to our health is a thing. The information is out there. Finding it--and understanding it--is key. Don’t wait for a bureaucrat to knock on your door and advise you that there’s a pollutant that might harm you. You must take the initiative and learn what’s nearby.

Most people don’t realize that there are environmental studies available online that relate to their town, the local waterway, or sometimes the street on which they live. This information is vital. My last post focused on how to research the basics about potential threats to your health.

This week, if you’ll forgive the pun, we’ll dig a bit deeper.

Your local riverkeeper organization is a good source for information. Riverkeepers are non-profit membership organizations dedicated to the protection of important rivers and their tributaries or watersheds. These groups generally maintain an online database on which you can research area waterways, including all studies, papers, or cleanup activities impacting those waterways.

The Buffalo-Niagara Riverkeeper organization can be found at BNriverkeeper.org, for example. There’s a wealth of information organized by the name of the waterway, or by more general studies and initiatives, such as “Niagara Watershed” or “Great Lakes.” For example, I entered “Cayuga Creek Impairment Niagara” and came up with a number of important studies and reports, including this one from 2009: http://bnriverkeeper.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/Cayuga-Creek-Watershed-Restoration-Road-Map.pdf

On page one, I learned the following about Cayuga Creek:

Persistent environmental contamination and pervasive habitat alterations within the watershed raises questions regarding issues of human health, resource management, ecological integrity and sustainability, and outdoor public recreational opportunities.

On page 2-3, I learned that:

The New York State 303(d) list of impaired waterbodies includes the following for the Cayuga Creek Watershed:

■ Dioxin contamination in Cayuga Creek

■ PCB contamination of Bergholtz Creek

■ Excessive phosphorus in Bergholtz Creek

■ Excessive pathogens in Bergholtz Creek

This document contains a wealth of information. For instance, on page 37, it states that "...of the 18 “Priority Toxics” listed in the Niagara River Toxics Management Plan (NRTMP): mirex, hexachlorobenzene (HCB), PAHs, dieldrin, DDT, PCBs, mercury, and dioxins still exceed criteria (one or more water quality, sediment, or biological) and are recommended for further study.”

The Riverkeeper site has links to other sources of information relating to Cayuga Creek or the Niagara River Watershed (of which Cayuga Creek is a part). From a 2005 study referenced on the site, I learned that:

Dioxin and PCB contaminated sediment has been dredged from the lower reaches of Gill and Cayuga Creeks. Both Gill (from its mouth upstream to Hyde Park Dam) and Cayuga Creek (from its mouth upstream to Walmore Road) are on the state’s Priority Waterbodies List for “fish consumption precluded” due to toxic and contaminated sediment (NYSDEC 2000). Cayuga Creek is also under a fish consumption advisory from the NYSDOH to “eat none” due to dioxin contamination (NYSDOH 2003).

http://niagara.nypa.gov/ALP%20working%20documents/finalreports/html/IS21.htm

If you live along Cayuga Creek, you should know and care about this information.

In addition to the Riverkeeper sites, the federal government maintains a number of websites that contain important environmental information. This site, for example, allows you to search for past or current federal superfund sites by location: http://www.epa.gov/superfund/sites/

The superfund program was created in 1980 in the aftermath of the notorious Love Canal environmental disaster. It was designed to locate, investigate, and clean up some of the most hazardous sites in the nation. Its official name is “CERCLA,” or the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administers the Superfund Program in cooperation with individual states. Keep in mind, though, that a “superfund site” is only one name for a potential problem area, and that these are the federally-designated sites only.

The EPA also maintains a site called Envirofacts Warehouse: http://www.epa.gov/enviro/ This site collects environmental data. You can search for information maintained by the EPA by address, city, site, or facility.

EPA recently added a web-mapping tool called EnviroMapper:

http://www.epa.gov/emefdata/em4ef.home

This tool allows you to access and organize environmental information stored in EPA's Envirofacts Warehouse. It includes information relating to superfund sites, drinking water, toxic and air releases, hazardous waste, and water discharge permits. The site allows you to add numerous features to an interactive map of your choice, including aerial, terrain, street, etc. For example, you can add to your map major roads, railroads, churches, hospitals, schools, populated places, counties, states, streams, streets, water bodies, watersheds, rivers, and federal lands.

The EnviroMapper site takes some work; it’s a tool used by people in the GIS (Geographic Information System) community who have training in this type of data organization, and is best on a fast computer. But the average person can figure it out with some practice. To see actual environmental information, you must zoom in far enough on the map (the map displays 16 miles across, maximum). You can either zoom manually, or by entering a state, county (and state), city (and state), watershed or ZIP code. You can even generate and share your own maps of environmental information. Keep in mind that this site lists EPA information only, and may not include state or local investigations and information. I recommend you look at the “how to use EnviroMapper” pages at: http://www.epa.gov/envirofw/html/em/em_faq.html

Each state has its own agency (or departments within other agencies) that monitors environmental matters. The agency might go by the name of Department of Environmental Conservation, Department of Natural Resources, Department of Environmental Protection, or Department of Environmental Quality. You can find your state’s agency here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_environmental_agencies_in_the_United_States

Those sites will allow you to search for environmental information tracked or monitored by state officials. A state might have other agencies that handle environmental issues. For example, the health department might have an environmental division that posts its own information online. New York City has its own environmental agency. Call these officials with any questions.

As I’ve written before, learning about the environment around us is how we’re intentional about living. It’s how we watch out for our children and parents. It’s part of how we’re good stewards of this Earth. It really is a thing.

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