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WE HAVE A LOT OF THINKING TO DO IN WNY BY PAUL MACCLENNAN

"There will always be smoke as long as there is a coke oven. That's the bottom line. There has been a vast improvement. We will enforce the codes, but what's happening now is like a parking violation and you don't take away the license, you fine, but you don't close the plant."

-- John J. Spagnoli, regional director, Department of Environmental Conservation

Even as BethEnergy pushes to get the last bit of pollution out of its waterfront plant, complaints mount about the smoke still drifting out of its stacks.

Smoke abatement officials say they will continue to impose fines for gross violations, but it's not in the cards to have blue skies over Bethlehem. DEC credits BethEnergy with a major effort to cut discharges -- the company has pumped $28 million into air and water pollution control systems.

The benzene emissions that pose a serious health threat are gone and chemicals going into the sewage treatment are under control and those represent the serious health and pollution threats, according to Spagnoli. "The smoke that's left is largely an aesthetic problem. It's carbon and that's not a threat to health or the environment."

Regional Air Quality Engineer Stanley Gubner says there are no air quality violations at any of DEC's downwind monitoring stations.

So be it, a little smoke, a few jobs -- but there are a number of other disturbing trends. Take the new line of sheet-steel piling along the Buffalo River side of the General Mills plant. Like the piling along the Erie Basin Marina and the mouth of the Buffalo River, it destroys any natural setting. There will be more.

State engineers have elected to put in more piling along the mile-long waterfront of Gratwick-Riverside Park in North Tonawanda, a "state of the art" solution in containing, rather than removing chemicals from the toxic dump that underlies the park. There will be more steel bulkheads along the 102nd Street dump as Olin Corp. and Occidental Chemical Corp. begin controlling toxic discharges from that site. As interest in the South Towns expressway connector picks up, one wonders if there will be similar shortcuts to avoid lengthy delays in building the superhighway. Its path cuts through an area of massive industrial dumping. By current standards it would take 5 to 10 years to undertake remedial action.

Too often in this region expediency has replaced common sense and one fears that the problems posed by those dumps will be brushed aside in favor of "getting the job done," just as building a stadium was resolved by moving football to the hinterlands.

It's not without some cynicism that one views the Horizons Waterfront Commission plan. It was 20 years ago that the Erie and Niagara Counties Regional Planning Board -- an agency recently dumped by the Gorski administration -- published "The Urban River." Along with a follow-up document, it spelled out many of the same proposals, albeit on a more modest and realistic level. The regional plan suggested, for example, a water bus connecting popular waterfront spots and Beaver Island.

Since that assessment, things have changed. The area surrounding Niagara Falls has become a mishmash of nightmarish tourist traps. Bethlehem died, but efforts are under way to bring in a new group of industries, although it is hardly necessary to use priceless waterfront land to burn tires or garbage. Terminals and coal stations are gone and in their place expensive housing limits public access.

It's the American dream to look ahead no matter what the scheme. What's happened on Wall Street could happen here, though not on the junk-bond scale of a Milken or a Boesky. A Lake Erie resort at Sturgeon Point, a park atop a municipal dump also used for disposal of radioactive wastes, more housing in the face of Lake Erie gales, another park atop an industrial dump where by magic it will become Cherry Farm as Love Canal has become Black Creek Village.

All of this comes as developers of every ilk blast federal and state officials for trying to preserve the vestiges of Western New York wetlands, which foster ecological preservation on the planet. Perhaps the funniest line came from Amherst Councilman Hal C. Collier, who said that had the wetlands regulations come 20 years ago 60 percent of Amherst's development would not have occurred. One could ask should it have come in the low lying, clay flats? Should taxpayers have had to spend $23 million to bail homeowners and the University at Buffalo out of the flood plain? Or tell it to those innocent buyers who had wet basements.

Town Engineer Joseph Latona laments the impact on development in Clarence, where citizens and officials year after year refuse to comply with civilized society's need for sewers in wide areas of the township. The wetlands probably cleanse some discharges WNY that end up in roadway ditches.

Pity Orchard Park, where development at soggy bottom is thwarted. As the saying goes, wetland comes cheap, sells high.

We have a lot of thinking to do in Western New York. It's a beautiful place to live -- summer and winter. We are a smaller society than we were a few years back when there were predictions of massive growth. Many of our sons and daughters were forced to look elsewhere for employment as steel mills closed and business shrunk.

We are having a hard time preserving the basic quality of life -- the Buffalo Philharmonic, the museums and galleries, the many fine small restaurants that set us apart, the parks and public gardens, the downtown, the schools and libraries, public radio and television.

As we think smaller, we must also begin to think smarter. We must cast a critical eye on the planners whose vision has often been shortsighted.

We may have to accept some smoke on the waterfront, but do we want to allocate more space for industry that has no need for a Lake Erie site?

We may have to accept more housing on our waterfronts, but must it be at the expense of the public's right to the first 100 or 200 feet of shoreline?

We may have to accept that the pie-in-the-sky development will come slowly, but can't we push for Scajaquada pathways or green belts?

We may have to accept some limits on suburban development, but is that a tragedy when stacked up against the long term need for wetlands?

Bah humbug? No, the real issue is involvement. Residents, for their own sakes and the sake of their children, must take a hard look. We have a chance to shape the nature of the environment we want from planners and politicians for the shoreline of Lake Erie and the Niagara River.

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