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URBAN LEGENDS & MYTHS: Should We Investigate Rumored Toxic Dumps?

These scenarios sound like the beginning of a horror movie:

Kids running through the woods stumble across corroded fifty-gallon drums…

Children’s fingers burning from the shiny rocks they’re tossing around…

Rainbow-colored water pooling in a basement hole dug for a new home…

If you grew up in Western New York, or in any aging industrial city, you’ve probably heard stories like these. They’re rumored dump sites. The places people have whispered about for years. Perhaps as kids they saw unusual things in a field. They remember using sticks to roll barrels around. Or, their parents worked for the chemical companies and told them never to live there. Nobody’s actually tested these sites, but people feel certain there’s a problem.

It’s the stuff of urban legend.

What do we do with those rumors? Should we test those locations? Should we use scarce resources simply because people are worried?

Sometimes, yes.

Sometimes it’s important to get to the bottom of those stories. To spend the money and investigate. A recent example brings this point home.

This one surfaced in Lewiston, New York.

Most people are already familiar with Lewiston’s Lake Ontario Ordinance Works (LOOW) site. Here’s a brief summary for those of you who are not. In 1942, the government acquired 7,500 acres of prime rural property in the towns of Lewiston and Porter. It used the property to build a sprawling TNT factory. More than 7,000 people worked there, some living in on-site dormitories (pictured below).

The factory was abruptly shut down after only ten months. Parts of the property were then sold to farmers, towns, and private industry owners.

The new property owners used the land in various ways. The Towns of Lewiston and Porter built the Lewiston-Porter school campus. Farmers grew fruit or raised dairy cows. Other owners used their property to dump or store extremely hazardous toxic waste.

To this day, nobody is completely sure what’s buried there.

But we do know this: Beginning in 1944, some owners dumped massive quantities of chemical and radioactive waste. Radioactive material was strewn about the site, sometimes in open pits. It was tracked by trucks all over Niagara County. More waste arrived in the years following WWII. The New York Times reported that the site contained over 20,000 tons of radioactive residues. Some of these substances will remain radioactive for tens of thousands of years.

My dad used to show me the “silo,” a 165-foot-tall open tower designed to hold water.

But instead of water, it contained 1,700 tons of atomic waste leftover from the Manhattan Project. An opening at the top allowed radon—the gas generated by the decay of the radium it contained—to leak into the air. It poisoned the community until the late 1980s. Radon is a radioactive gas that’s linked to breast cancer.

That’s just a thumbnail sketch of what occurred at the site.

These activities, including the TNT production and storage, occupied 2,500 acres of the eastern portion of LOOW. The remaining 5,000 acres were left undeveloped, supposedly acting as a buffer zone.

That’s where Lewiston-Porter schools were built.

And that’s where several local urban legends got their start. One involved mutated deer. Some people, only half kiddingly, used to say that the deer glowed. I was shocked to learn that a UB researcher, Dr. Resnikoff, conducted a study in 1981 that concluded that 15 abnormalities had been found in 20 deer captured near the site. Four of the deer had high amounts of radium and cesium in their liver.

Yes, radioactive deer.

There were other rumors connected with the school area. Students practicing in the fields talked of seeing parts of corroded barrels. Puddles of discolored water. Industrial debris.

Urban myths? Maybe not. It looks like there might be some truth to those rumors.

In 2000, in connection with an extensive study of the LOOW, federal officials decided to take a closer look at some “areas of concern,” or “AOCs,” in the Buffer Zone. One of those areas is referred to as AOC 1. It’s approximately 3,300 square yards and is immediately adjacent to the Lewiston-Porter school campus. You can see it on the map below. Note the school’s location on the map.

According to government documents available online, AOC 1 was evaluated because “… it contained various trash and debris as well as terra cotta piping, transite siding, ceramic electrical junctions, and approximately 6-8 deteriorated steel 55-gallon drums. A solid, caked, fibrous, brownish-black material was observed and was identified as possible former 55-gallon drum contents, based on the shape of material.”

The results of the investigation were released in 2013. The report is called a final remedial investigation (“RI”).

What did they find?

“Unacceptable additional risk associated with the contaminants detected at AOC 1 – EU 8 [that] requires further environmental action and management…Based on sampling completed during the RI, concentrations exceeding risk based criteria for human health extend to a depth of approximately 3 feet below ground surface. Risk outside of the acceptable range was identified for the adult trespasser, adolescent trespasser, maintenance worker, commercial worker, construction worker, resident adult, and resident child (receptors) from exposure to 2,4,6-TNT in surface soil. Lead in surface soil is also a potential concern for the resident child.”

Specifically, for those of you who want to know more:

Surface Soil

An SVOC, explosives, inorganics, and radionuclide measurements were detected in surface soil at concentrations greater than the project screening criteria. They included:

One SVOC (i.e., benzo(a)pyrene)

Eight explosives (i.e., 1,3-dinitrobenzene; 2,4,6-trinitrotoluene [TNT]; 2,4-dinitrotoluene [DNT]; 2,6-DNT; 2-amino-4,6-DNT, 2-nitrotoluene, 4-amino-2,6-DNT, and cyclotrimethylenetrinitramine [RDX])

Sixteen metals (i.e., aluminum, antimony, arsenic, barium, cadmium, chromium [hexavalent], cobalt, copper, iron, lead, lithium, manganese, nickel, thallium, vanadium, and zinc)

Radionuclide measurements (i.e., gross alpha and gross beta)

Subsurface Soil

Explosives and metals were detected in subsurface soil at concentrations greater than the project screening criteria. They included:

One explosive (i.e., 2,4,6-TNT)

Eight metals (i.e., aluminum, arsenic, chromium [hexavalent], cobalt, iron, lithium, manganese, and thallium)

Surface Water

An SVOC, explosives, and metals were detected in surface water at concentrations greater than project screening criteria. They included:

One TCL SVOC (i.e., 4-methylphenol)

Two explosives (i.e., 3-nitrotoluene and RDX)

Sixteen metals (i.e., aluminum, arsenic, barium, beryllium, cadmium, cobalt, copper, iron, lead, lithium, manganese, nickel, potassium, silver, vanadium, and zinc)


VOCs and metals were detected in sediment at concentrations greater than project screening criteria. They included:

Two VOCs (i.e., 2-butanone and acetone)

Sixteen metals (i.e., aluminum, arsenic, barium, beryllium, cadmium, cobalt, copper, iron, lead, lithium, manganese, nickel, potassium, silver, vanadium, and zinc)

The government has ordered more studies and reports. A remedial Feasibility Study, or “FS” is due out in 2015. This study will examine the potential remedial actions for the site. Once that is published, officials can discussed how best to clean up the site. It’ll take some time.

Turns out those stories weren’t so crazy after all.

So, aside from the overly-exacting technical indicators, how should we decide whether to investigate rumored dump sites? Here’s some initial thoughts.

-In areas of persistent talk and rumors, let’s investigate when vulnerable populations are present; especially when there’s a school nearby. Let’s err on the side of safety.

-Let’s investigate when people have consistent memories of possible illegal dumping activities. That should especially be the case when those people formerly worked for the polluters.

-Let’s investigate when we observe unusual “ground disturbances,” unnatural mounds on a site, anomalies in the vegetation, visible barrels poking through the soil.

-Let’s investigate when we suspect people are sick with diseases in statistically too-high numbers. In addition to cancers, we need to focus on autoimmune diseases, birth defects, neurological problems, and learning disabilities. These days, we know more about chemical and radiological toxins and they don’t just cause cancer. And let’s not wait for health studies that take twenty years to complete. That’s simply too late for people and animals.

If we don’t respond to concerns in a timely manner, those horror scenarios at the beginning of this post can become reality. In fact, every one of those is true. The environmental devastation of Western New York has resulted in loss, sickness, and pain. Let’s act when common sense tells us to, not just when a twenty-year study suggests that another lengthy study is in order. This is how we love our neighbor. This is how we care for Creation.

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