The federal government will remove less Manhattan Project radioactive wastes from a closed Town of Tonawanda landfill than state and local officials wanted.
But local officials said this week they're relieved the Army Corps of Engineers plans to do at least something.
The Corps says that its remediation – which includes removing a 5-foot layer of soil — is a cost-effective solution that will protect residents in nearby homes in the City of Tonawanda and others for 1,000 years.
The 55-acre former landfill is located north of Interstate-290, adjacent to homes on Hackett Drive in the City of Tonawanda and an industrial park owned by the town.
Soil in the landfill contains elevated levels of radioactive material, including uranium, believed to be from wastes from the World War II era Manhattan Project – which produced America's first nuclear weapons. Elevated levels of uranium have also been found in groundwater leeching from the landfill.
The full price for the partial remediation the Corps has decided to undertake is estimated at $12.2 million, according to the Corps' final order of decision, which was issued this past week and made available for the public to view.
Officials from the State Department of Environmental Conservation and local government agencies and residents near the landfill had urged the Corps to excavate and treat more of the contaminated soil, but that would have cost an estimated $55.4 million, according to the Corps' latest report on the project.
The Corps, which has been working on a cleanup plan for more than a decade, said no date to start the cleanup has been set. The Corps noted the start of remedial action depends on the availability of national program funding and the completion of cleanups already underway.
"We wanted them to remove all of the radioactive waste material," Town Supervisor Joseph Emminger said. "It's leftover from the Manhattan Project from World War II. We think it should all be gone."
Hot spots of radioactive contamination were found in the northern part of the partially-capped landfill, near the backyards of about three dozen homes on Hackett Drive, according to the Corps report.
Joyce Hogenkamp, who grew up on Hackett Drive and now lives around the corner from the landfill, spent years as the president of Citizens United for Justice lobbying for action at the site. She said she is angry that it took so long for the Army Corps to make a final decision on the cleanup. And she had wanted the Corps to do a deeper excavation of the contaminated soil.
"A partial cleanup is better than nothing and that's what we've faced for the last 12 years — nothing. Now we are on a list, at the bottom of the list, so who knows how much longer we are going to have to wait to have this cleaned up?" said Hogenkamp. "They knew what it was. They knew where it came from. They had the identifying markers. (The years of testing) were just a long drawn out excuse to do nothing."
Hogenkamp said the amount of cancers suffered by women up and down Hackett Drive is "just scary."
"It's almost every house or pretty close to it," said Hogenkamp of cancer in her childhood neighborhood.
But she said she is not leaving, adding "Who will fight if I leave?"
In 2007, the Corps issued a report on the site that concluded the health risk posed by the radioactive material was within acceptable limits set by law and it recommended no cleanup action be taken. But it changed its recommendation after local residents said that children often walked across the landfill as a shortcut to the nearby Riverview Elementary School.
After additional soil and groundwater testing from 2009 to 2011, the Corps concluded that the cancer risks due to the radioactive material is currently within acceptable limits, less than one in a million chance, but it determined that trespassers and others could be exposed to health risks above that limit in about 600 years if the landfill's surface was not maintained and the top layer of soil eroded.
Concerns about the health impacts of high levels of benzene in the air from Tonawanda industrial sources prompted a 2013 state Department of Health study of cancer and birth defect occurrences over 20 years in the town.
The state study concluded that areas near Tonawanda's industrial corridor had statistically greater risk of lung cancer, bladder cancer, and total cancers in both males and females; esophageal cancer was elevated among males; and uterine cancer was elevated among females. There were elevated levels found of two additional types of cancer in isolated areas in the town: oral cavity/pharynx cancer among males and leukemia among females.
The state study did not determine the cause of the elevated cancer risks.
City of Tonawanda Mayor Rick Davis said he's been pushing for a cleanup of the landfill as far back as 2006, when he was first on the Common Council.
"The federal government said it wasn't their contamination and we fought than and we finally got them to recognize it was from the Manhattan Project. But they weren't willing to do anything and we fought that," said Davis. "I was hoping for a full cleanup, but I think the price tag of over $50 million was too high... the higher the cost the longer it takes to get done."
"It's kind of the happy medium, between doing nothing and full remediation," Davis said of the Corps' cleanup decision. "I feel with the shallow excavation it is something we will see (completed) sooner rather than later."
The Town of Tonawanda began disposing of waste at the landfill during the 1930s and it continued through 1989.
There's no record of Manhattan Project wastes being disposed of in the landfill, according to the Corps' report. But it determined the radioactive material in the landfill may have come from the former Linde Air Products Division of Union Carbide, which from 1942 to 1946 processed uranium ores at its ceramics plant in Tonawanda under a Manhattan Project contract.
The Corps' cleanup plan, called "Alternative 3," calls for targeted shallow removal of the first five feet of topsoil and off-site disposal at a permitted facility. All of the potentially contaminated soil will be screened in the field, stockpiled, sampled and analyzed before being removed. Perimeter air will be monitored and groundwater will also be collected and analyzed with provisions made to protect removal areas from runoff. To complete the project, clean, low permeable soil will be backfilled over the landfill.
After the work has been completed the Army Corps plans to use radon flux monitoring of uncapped portions of the landfill at depths greater than 5 feet. A review will also be conducted above ground every five years to ensure that the remediation is protecting the public's health and the environment.