Look at some of the most significant environmental concerns in Niagara County over the past several decades and there, taking a leadership role on the community's behalf, is Walter D. Garrow.
Garrow, who recently moved from Niagara Falls to Wheatfield, these days has his hands in the federal investigation of a former weapons production site in Lewiston and Porter that covered 7,500 acres of former farmland. Only about one-third of the site was developed, and a portion of it now stores radioactive waste from the Manhattan Project.
Garrow became chairman of the Lake Ontario Ordnance Works Restoration Advisory Board (RAB), the arm of public input for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, in March 2006.
The 56-year-old is corporate safety director for Buffalo's Quality Inspection Services.
He recently talked with The Buffalo News about the past, present and future of contamination at the former Ordnance Works site.
>The LOOW RAB isn't the first environmental legacy-related project you've been involved in. Can you talk about your experience with the Love Canal Revitalization Agency?
I was on the revitalization committee as a community representative through the appointment of the City of Niagara Falls. I was also involved as a chemist for Occidental Chemical and had worked in their environmental health and safety department. And also being a resident of Love Canal. Houses behind my house were evacuated as part of the initial stages . . .
The goal of the Love Canal Revitalization Agency was to use outside funds from the state and federal government to renovate and make the housing available to be re-lived in . . . and it was nice to see the buildings rebuilt with new roofs, new windows, new siding, new poured concrete sidewalks and driveways, and in later years to see families growing up there again . . .
Don't forget about Buffalo, working with Joe Gardella [University at Buffalo professor and Lewiston-Porter Schools representative on advisory board] in the past with South Buffalo. That was a huge area, because in South Buffalo there were historical emissions from the plants that were along the Buffalo River.
>How would you compare the way the community is engaged here in the LOOW and the RAB with your other experiences?
Love Canal and South Buffalo were fairly focused where there would be one or two companies involved, and the environmental situation was very specific in location and substances involved.
The LOOW is substantially more complicated in having multiple sites, multiple histories and multiple contamination varieties . . . and over the histories, companies have come and gone and participated, and that made it a more complicated situation of who was working on what under which authority.
>That sort of answered my next question. Environmental contamination in this area isn't too uncommon, but what makes the LOOW site unique in terms of why people should pay attention to it?
The LOOW site, like I said, is complicated in having multiple parts. However, what makes it more complicated is the magnitude of material associated with high hazards, such as the Manhattan Project leftover radioactive material and the amount of material that's contaminated is a fairly sizable volume . . .
Now you've got mixed contamination of chemicals plus radiation, which makes it a much more technically complicated thing. So, for example, if you have radioactive organic hazardous materials, you can't treat those organic hazardous materials like you would coming from a chemical plant because it has the added feature of radioactive material, potentially. So now you have the world of chemistry and nuclear energy folded together.
>There's been an ongoing issue of access to information that the Army Corps has found in its investigation. The RAB has been looking for increased access to data. Tell me why you're looking for that.
This gets into some of my personal feelings. When we reorganized in 2002, it was still understood that there would have been an interaction with the Corps of Engineers, a sharing in the development of policy and procedure and protocols . . . towards planning and final decision-making.
When the Department of Defense established this role for the corps, they understood that the [Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act] process dealing with hazardous waste sites is not necessarily enough . . . for the public to feel like they're participating. So the RAB is a mechanism for the public to interact in a focused way with the corps.
What has happened in the last year or two, the corps has taken a much more regimented, legal stance. . . . They're using the definition of public participation as a limit going up to and no more than, as compared to using public participation in [the comprehensive liability act] as a guaranteed minimum. And the result is that they're giving bits of information that's legally acceptable in their defined roles. . . . And if the corps makes all the decisions within their own walls, then the public will say, "We didn't have any say and we don't agree with what you're doing." And that could cause conflict.
>Because of those sort of issues related to the Army Corps and their legal stance, you've mentioned to me a third-party facilitator is a possibility or something that you might be looking for.
Other RABs have had facilitators. And the role of a facilitator is to be a nonlinked third party to help bridge between two sides.
And there are two sides here -- there's a community and their needs, and there's the government with their assignment. And the facilitator will allow some equalizing of the communication of the roles. Right now, with the corps making all of the decisions, it minimizes the public. And a facilitator will help keep it more even . . .
>The legal stance that the corps is using, it sort of stems from the idea or the notion of a responsible party.
Well, it's a delicate legal area. . . . If there's an abandoned hazardous waste site, and let's say there were three different entities involved with that waste site, maybe one entity spent 50 years dumping all sorts of hazardous materials, and then they left. And then a second entity comes in and spends maybe a year or two doing some light work and then leaves.
And then somebody else comes and practically has no industrial activities, but just happens to own the property. And then it comes out that the site is leaking.
And a [comprehensive liability act] situation is set up for remediation of the site for public protection. In that scenario, the government, the EPA, the DEC for us, would be establishing who's responsible to pay for the remediation. And they'll go through the records, the histories and anybody who had any involvement would be given some percentage of responsibility and financial commitment.
Now, within the RAB site right now we don't have that. The Corps of Engineers has been assigned to work within the inner area and they will only go where their definitions are going to go.
So for example, . . . the Department of Environmental Conservation . . . mentioned some buildings that had asbestos. Now the Corps of Engineers will probably say that "That's not within our defined definition. We're not responsible to remove that." Because there's no responsible party scenario developed for the overall site, it's going to remain unaddressed until the corps is done, and then the DEC will have to step in and then continue on with the traditional [comprehensive liability act] with the remainder. Now that causes delays.
>Under the current process, under the current way things are set up now, what is the future of the site in terms of contamination? If the Army Corps is only looking for certain things, does that mean when they're done, there still could be contamination there?
Part of what the members of the RAB have been so insistent upon, and the reason they've been requesting participation in sampling plans, for example, as they would want to have no particular area that should be analyzed not analyzed.
For example, we have RAB chemists. We have toxicologists. I'm an industrial hygienist. We have radiologists. We have people that are familiar with hydrology. We have professional training and expertise to provide rational suggestions. Why did you miss this spot? Why can't you include that spot? It seems like you did this there, but why didn't you consider this chemical considering the history over there?
And the reason why I'm pointing out those details [is because] it's very important for the corps to sit down with us, instead of making their decisions saying, "Here's a report. What do you think of it?" It would be so much more functional if they would be able to sit down with us and get this feedback beforehand.
The reason why it's important is . . . if they make the conclusions of those reports based on information that they've planned, and not including some things, the resulting conclusions may be that it's not as bad as it needs to be to be able to do something significant.