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Query on LOOW advisory board raises ire of existing group

World War II ended in 1945 with these four words spoken by Gen. Douglas MacArthur, supreme commander for the Allied powers:

"These proceedings are closed."

And nearly 70 years later, the U.S. military still is struggling with how to clean up the mess left over from wartime weapons production at the Lake Ontario Ordnance Works in the towns of Lewiston and Porter.

The end is not yet in sight.

The district commander of the Army Corps of Engineers is asking residents of Lewiston and Porter whether they think a Restoration Advisory Board should be established to help the corps decide how to clean up the former munitions plant -- a decision that appears to be years away.

Complicating the commander's request, however, is the fact that just such a board was set up in 1999. Some of its members insist that it still exists and that no new board is necessary. And yet another group, the recently organized Citizens Advisory Committee, says that it, too, should have a voice in deciding what happens at the decommissioned ordnance works.

Lt. Col. Stephen H. Bales, commander of the Buffalo District of the corps, has sent an open letter to members of the Lewiston-Porter community "to request your input on the establishment of an official Department of Defense Restoration Advisory Board" for the former ordnance works. Bales asked that written responses be submitted by May 4 to the corps' district office at 1776 Niagara St., Buffalo.

Corps spokesman Bruce Sanders said the letter is intended "to determine whether there is enough interest" in establishing a new Restoration Advisory Board, commonly called an RAB.

Bales' letter said no official RAB is operating at the site, and "the corps is required to reassess possible community interest in forming [an] RAB every 24 months." The letter is intended to fulfill that requirement, Sanders said, and does not necessarily suggest that the corps favors the formation of an RAB. In fact, the spokesman said, similar letters have gone out every two years, and "it was determined that sufficient interest did not exist for a new RAB at that time."

"Regardless of whether an official Department of Defense RAB is established," the commander's letter says, the corps "will continue to meet its public participation requirements." Sanders said that means the corps will work with members of the original RAB established in 1999, the Citizens Advisory Committee and any other individual or group "stakeholders" in the future of the ordnance works site.

If a new board is established, Bales said, he would lead it, and it "would consist of a panel of community and government representatives" managed by two co-chairmen -- a corps representative and a community member.

Absent from the the board's mission would be any consideration of the small portion of the ordnance works now known as the Niagara Falls Interim Storage Site, where radioactive residue from the manufacturing of the atomic bomb is stored in an underground "containment structure." That storage site is managed under a separate government program.

Members of the 1999 RAB disagree sharply with many of the corps' views. They issued a written statement earlier this month saying that "the corps decided it had dissolved the RAB back in 2002, without notice to the public."

RAB Chairman William Choboy and Vice Chairman Alfonso Marra Bax acknowledged that the board had "scientific disputes with the corps" but denied it had been dissolved. "The RAB continues to this day to provide the community and corps with information and analysis on activities at the Lake Ontario Ordnance Works," their statement said.

Its "stakeholders include the towns of Lewiston and Porter, the villages of Lewiston and Youngstown, and the Lewiston-Porter Central School District in addition to local tribes, groups, community members and agencies," the statement said.

Choboy said, "A new RAB would sharply curtail the level of public participation and community influence afforded the current RAB."

Bax added, "The current RAB protects procedural rights of stakeholders that cannot be grandfathered or delegated to a new RAB or the non-regulated Citizens Advisory Committee."

Members of the Citizens Advisory Committee, which is not officially recognized by the corps but is invited to participate along with other stakeholders, said they are trying to complement, not compete with, the RAB and are trying to foster friendly relations with the corps.

Lewiston Trustee Therese M. Mudd suggested that the Village Board "participate in and monitor both organizations." She said the RAB is "active, vocal and fully participatory," and the advisory committee is "well-versed in the problems and possible solutions [and] has expertise. The two groups offer differing expertise and seem to have differing areas of interest, albeit in the same project."

Amy Hope Witryol, who became a member of the old RAB in 2003 and is secretary-designate of its steering committee, said the board is not an advocacy group nor an organization of environmental activists but is dedicated to helping "the public understanding of the questions raised by the Corps of Engineers about the future use of the site."

Witryol, a Lewiston Democrat, is a candidate seeking to unseat State Sen. George D. Maziarz, R-Newfane, in this year's election.

The Department of Defense acquired 7,500 acres near the Lewiston-Porter town line in 1941 and built the Lake Ontario Ordnance Works to manufacture trinitrotoluene, or TNT, during World War II. TNT production facilities were built on about 2,500 acres, and the remaining 5,000 acres were left undeveloped. The army manufactured TNT there for about nine months.

The TNT plant was decommissioned in 1943, and the 5,000 acres of undeveloped land was declared excess and was disposed of to private landowners. Present owners include the Lewiston-Porter School District, local and federal governments, individual homeowners and private corporations such as Chemical Waste Management Co. and Modern Disposal Services.

About 1,500 acres in the southern portion of the ordnance works production area were transferred to the Manhattan Engineering District, which later became the Atomic Energy Commission and then the Department of Energy. The Manhattan Engineering District worked on development of the atomic bomb. The Department of Energy still owns 191 acres of that property, now known as the Niagara Falls Interim Storage Site. Until 1952, radioactive waste and residue were taken there for storage.

Little did Gen. MacArthur know when he declared "These proceedings are closed" with the Japanese surrender in 1945 that the Army still would be wrestling with the munitions legacy of World War II in 2012 in Lewiston and Porter.

email: rbaldwin@buffnews.com