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County calls for cleanup of CWM pond, fearing nuke waste

PORTER – The Niagara County Health Department has called on the state to force CWM Chemical Services to clean up a pond near the company’s hazardous waste landfill because some nuclear waste may be exposed.

The state Department of Environmental Conservation on Oct. 20 approved a plan by a contractor hired by CWM to cover the 18-inch-thick deposit of radioactive material in the earthen berm surrounding the pond with one foot of clean soil. On Nov. 16, the DEC told CWM to conduct another radioactivity survey after the soil cover is laid down.

The cover was installed in early December, CWM spokeswoman Lori Caso said last week. “Everything we have done, we have done with the DEC’s approval,” she said.

The pond, which held wastewater that ran off from the landfill, is in the area that CWM wants to excavate to create a new landfill, since the existing one has run out of space.

That means the pond would be filled in and the reported nuclear waste buried if CWM wins state permission to dig the new landfill, but county Public Health Director Daniel J. Stapleton said in a letter to the state that he fears a public health threat exists now because of the alleged exposure of the waste in the berm. That earthen wall was created from dirt excavated to build the pond in the first place.

CWM’s property off Balmer Road originally was part of the Lake Ontario Ordnance Works site, where the federal government buried nuclear waste from the World War II atomic bomb project and other radioactive materials stemming from processing or uranium and other materials by local manufacturers in the immediate postwar years.

Although the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the 1980s gathered all the nuclear waste into a 10-acre landfill in the Lewiston portion of the property, the government admits that radioactive contamination persists in soil and groundwater around that site.

The Corps is now calling for the complete excavation and removal of all the nuclear waste at the Niagara Falls Storage Site, but the need to create plans to clean up the radioactivity in the surrounding soil and in the groundwater, as well as questions over funding for the $490 million removal plan, may keep the nuclear waste in Lewiston until the early 2030s, the Corps said earlier this month.

CWM’s pond, officially known as Facultative Pond 8, was dug in 1978. It is 10 feet deep and surrounded by berms that are 14 feet high. There is radioactive sediment at the bottom of the pond, and Stapleton said he doesn’t want CWM or the regulators to lose track of that material if it is moved around in a new landfill project.

“Is it something we already had from previous activities, or is it new? … You don’t know if the sediment is from the fac pond or if there’s a leak (from the landfill),” Stapleton said. “That is a major concern.”

He said the presence of the radioactive material could be used as another argument to prevent CWM from receiving a permit for its proposed new landfill, which the county officially opposes.

The DEC directed CWM to remediate the pond in 2009, but that hasn’t happened so far. Tests in 2010 showed elevated radiation in sediment 2 to 4 feet deep at the bottom of the pond, and in a small part of the east side berm, about 8 inches deep. The company’s consultant said it removed the radiative material from the berm in the course of taking soil samples.

In 2011, according to Stapleton’s letter to the state Health Department, CWM hired another company that found extremely high levels of gama radiation right on the surface of the northern berm around the pond, and ended up removing 66 tons of dirt from the northern berm, 4½ tons from the eastern berm and 54 tons from the pond floor. None of this was expected in the consultant’s report, Stapleton wrote. But the 18-inch-thick area of highly radioactive material on the surface of the inside slope of the northern berm was not removed.

Stapleton’s letter said the previous reports for CWM, which didn’t discover the true amounts of radioactive material in the pond and berms, don’t give him confidence that the 18-inch-thick vein of radioactive waste is all that’s there.

“Given the history of failed federal remediation efforts, it is not reasonable to anticipate contamination will be confined to the surface. Subsurface contamination can be identified only by performing sufficient subsurface sampling to an appropriate depth. This has not been done,” his letter said.

Meanwhile, on Dec. 4 the DEC approved CWM’s request to delay capping work on the hazardous waste landfill until spring. The agency’s letter noted that its regulations prohibit the final placement of landfill cover between Nov. 30 and April 1. The DEC ordered CWM to provide a schedule for the work by March 1, and ruled the project must be complete by Nov. 6.

Residents for Responsible Government, a local environmental group, had denounced the CWM request for a weather-related delay in capping the toxic waste as an instance of “corporate greed.”