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Toxic contaminants should be removed from Lackawanna’s waterfront

City of Lackawanna officials who want to develop the waterfront and some day attract visitors have every right to be upset over the possibility that toxic waste could spoil that future.

The city certainly has potential, with Mayor Geoffrey M. Szymanski pointing to its two miles of lakefront property and “some of the most scenic views of Lake Erie.”

But the Department of Environmental Conservation wants to leave a huge amount of dangerous Bethlehem Steel-era waste on the site. That waste should be removed, as Lackawanna officials prefer. Removing the toxic remnants from the company’s coke plant and other facilities will pave the way for a new vision for the waterfront. It is hard to imagine that new vision taking shape atop toxic waste, regardless of how deeply and well buried.

We’re talking about 8,600 cubic yards of contaminated soil and fill, enough to fill three Olympic-size swimming pools. It is scheduled to be moved and buried in a pit near Smokes Creek, just 1,500 feet from the shores of Lake Erie.

As indicated in The News article, the soil contains such poisonous substances as ammonia, arsenic, benzene, lead and other semi-volatile organic compounds.

Tecumseh Redevelopment, a subsidiary of ArcelorMittal USA, which acquired title to the land in the early 2000s following the bankruptcy of Bethlehem Steel, is under orders to clean up the site. The company wants to contain contaminated materials on-site. While that may be good for the company, it will hurt any redevelopment plans.

To see the potential for that land, just visit Buffalo’s waterfront, where the Outer Harbor and Canalside show how people are drawn to the water, with its kayaks, paddle boats, bicycle ferry and all manner of activities, from concerts to yoga to skating in the winter.

Szymanski sees the possibilities of the Bethlehem site, which includes nearly one-third of the city’s property and all of its waterfront. He is bothered – and reasonably so – by the possibility that hazardous materials could remain on the site forever, saying: “It’s really restricting our ability to become a better city.”

The DEC has offered a number of assurances that there will be a specialized containment system that is protected and constantly monitored. The agency’s precautions are worth noting, but any concern about the hazards could be eliminated by digging up the contaminants for disposal at a facility designed to take such waste.

Lackawanna should be given the opportunity for the kind of waterfront resurgence its neighbor is currently experiencing. That can’t happen next to a toxic dump.