The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dumped hundreds of tons of construction debris from a Town of Tonawanda radioactive-waste cleanup site at landfills and scrap yards in Erie and Niagara counties over a three-year period.
The metal, concrete and other debris cleared from the former Linde Air Products site contains trace levels of radiation and is safe for disposal locally, according to corps officials. But when state regulators learned in July that the corps dumped Linde debris at a Cheektowaga landfill two years ago, the state Department of Environmental Conservation imposed an emergency rule barring the dumping of any such materials in New York State.
State officials, who are now moving to make that emergency rule permanent, say that the radiation levels of the material dumped at the Integrated Waste Systems-Schultz landfill, on Indian Road in Cheektowaga, are low and that the material is safe.
But the state doesn't want material with any measurable levels of radioactivity dumped in New York, environmental officials said.
"It is something that we want to discourage," said DEC spokeswoman Jennifer Post. "Radioactive material should be disposed of at facilities designed to handle radioactive material."
Cheektowaga officials and residents are outraged. They learned only in recent weeks -- and then by accident -- about the Linde materials ending up in a local landfill.
"That's a very, very high-handed approach
to the public," said Thomas M. Johnson Jr., a Cheektowaga Town Board member.
Donna Hosmer, a Cheektowaga environmental activist, also was upset.
"I'm disgusted with the blatant disregard the corps is showing for human life," she said.
The material dumped at Schultz is just one piece of the corps' $30 million cleanup at Linde and two other Town of Tonawanda sites.
Starting in 1997, the corps began digging up radioactive material left over from the federal government's efforts during World War II to build an atomic bomb.
What ended up in Schultz is only a fraction of the Linde material dumped in landfills and scrap yards in Erie and Niagara counties.
But that's what raised a warning flag at the DEC.
The corps initially reported it had dumped 25 tons of debris at Schultz. The corps later amended that to about six tons, saying the other 19 tons actually went to a landfill in Erie, Pa.
The corps also says it mistakenly reported that radiation levels for material taken to Schultz was higher than it actually is.
The material with the higher reading was sent out of state, corps spokeswoman Arlene K. Kreusch said.
In addition, the state DEC said it understood the Linde material was being sent to an out-of-state disposal site in 1998.
It wasn't until February 2000, when the DEC received a report on the completed demolition of Building 30 on the Linde site, that state officials learned that some of the waste from the building's north bay had been dumped at Schultz.
"We would have appreciated being notified because it was going into a state-regulated landfill," said Post, the DEC spokeswoman.
The events that led the DEC to draft the emergency rule last July, and other details of the corps' dumping, have come to light in recent weeks as the state moves to adopt the rule permanently.
At about the same time the corps dumped about six tons of debris at Schultz, it also took 111 tons of scrap steel from the same site to Louis Levin and Co.'s scrap yard in the City of Tonawanda, corps cleanup records show.
City of Tonawanda Mayor Alice Roth said she wasn't aware the material was hauled to the Levin yard.
"It concerns me that that happened and we weren't aware of it," said Roth, who promised to investigate whether the metal disposed of at the Levin scrap yard is safe.
She noted that some homes are within 500 feet of the Levin scrap yard on Fillmore Avenue.
More recently, during the seven-month period from June 2000 to January 2001, the corps sent hundreds of tons of debris with trace radiation levels to disposal sites in Buffalo, the Town of Tonawanda and Niagara Falls.
Part of the debate hinges on the different standards of radioactivity that are followed by the DEC and the corps.
The corps tests all of the soil and debris removed from the cleanup sites to determine their radioactivity and where the material can be safely disposed of, said Christopher Hallam, a health physicist with the corps.
The most-radioactive soil and materials are shipped by rail to a disposal site in Utah, the method that is most expensive.
Whenever material is deemed nonradioactive, according to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission standards used by the corps, it is approved for disposal at regular landfills, at less cost, said Hallam.
The corps took more than 300 samples of material from the Building 30 north bay addition at Linde.
All the readings of uranium, radium and thorium were far below the cleanup standards set by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Hallam said.
But the fact that the material has measurable radioactivity, even if the levels are deemed safe, is what concerns the DEC, town officials and residents.
Johnson, the Cheektowaga Town Board member, said the DEC or the state Health Department should have evaluated whether the debris was safe to dispose of at Schultz.
Dumping the Linde waste at Schultz adds to environmental problems in the town's Broadway-Indian Road-Como Park Boulevard area, he said.
The neighborhood is home to two closed hazardous waste landfills and one of Western New York's biggest and busiest stone quarries.
The health concerns have triggered two studies -- one of respiratory ailments and another on cancer rates in the area.
News Northtowns Bureau reporter Dick Dawson contributed to this report.