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Occidental Chemical Corp.'s cleanup of the Pettit Flume toxic site on the Niagara River is unique in its scope, complexity and significance for the region.

It involves removal rather than containment of chemically contaminated wastes from a marshy cove and poisonous sediment from the bottom of the Little Niagara River in North Tonawanda. Some 8,000 cubic yards of soil will be stored for later disposal.

Part of a $20 million dollar overall Durez Division remedial project, the work is due for completion this summer, marking a milestone on the road to curbing the flow of industrial toxins into the river by 50 percent in 1996. Because Occidental discharges more than 50 percent of the total toxic waste load, its progress is a bellwether.

The project has added significance in terms of efforts to clean up 43 toxic hot spots across the Great Lakes. Occidental developed a method for vacuuming the river bottom under trying conditions and is carrying it out even as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, five years later and at a cost in the millions of dollars, continues to study the problem in a series of demonstration projects, such as that on the Buffalo River.

For Occidental it is the final months of a six-year project: First to contain 14 dumps on its Walck Avenue Durez plant site, then to clean contaminants from 13 miles of sewers leading to the Pettit Flume site and finally cleaning up the shoreline chemicals including dioxin.

The Pettit Flume job includes digging out chemically laced soils in a one-acre cove just behind the state Off Track Betting hall. The area will be partially refilled, replanted and restored as a wildlife and fish habitat.

Divers working off a barge are using a six-inch hose to suck up tainted sediment that flowed through the cove and into the river. They work in near darkness, sometimes in bitter cold, around the clock against a current that makes it difficult to stand upright. The area is marked off in 10-square-foot sections. After some false starts, divers have completed more than 50 percent of the area.

E. I. du Pont & de Nemours & Co. Inc. and Olin Corp. removed sediments from Gill Creek by first cutting off the flow of water, whereas the Occidental job involves working 20 feet under water.

"We expect to finish the river work before the boating season begins and the whole project this year," said Occidental project manager James Williams. Williams and the project engineer, Joe Coveney, were careful to say that the technology fits this site and would be slow going over a larger area. But in many respects it is not unlike some of the federal demonstration projects.

Unlike most remedial works, it will not leave a "dead zone" but will again attract fish, birds and other wildlife in safety.

Occidental, with the region's largest toxic dump problem, still has four or five years of work on containing its major sites and working with other companies at Pfohl Bros., Gratwick Park and Frontier Chemical. Some work could go into the next decade.

Thomas L. Jennings, Occidental Chemical's vice president for environmental affairs, said the company should meet its share of the U.S.-Canadian goal of a 50 percent reduction by cutting off the flow from its sites by 1996.

He still disputes the EPA estimates that one site alone, the Buffalo Avenue plant, contributes 349 of the 694 pounds of persistent toxic chemicals entering the Niagara River every day. Jennings said it's closer to 30 pounds, according to consultants.

Charles Zafonte, EPA's Niagara regional coordinator, defends the estimates, but said the agency has a a consultant reviewing the original report in light of new analysis and additional information based on work at toxic dumps.

Although EPA and Environment Canada have again broken a pledge to meet every six months, Zafonte said a session is planned June 16 at which the governments, plus New York and Ontario, will report on progress of remedial work at 24 key sites, possibly add others contaminating the river to the list, give revised estimates on total toxic flow, and discuss the next steps toward attaining zero discharge as called for in the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement.

During an interview, Jennings said Occidental will complete work on a second site this year, containing and capping the the Hyde Park dump adjacent to Niagara University.

The joint Olin-Occidental site south of Love Canal is tied up in discussions with fish and wildlife personnel over retaining rather than walling off much of the shoreline which is considered good habitat. At S-Area, alongside the Niagara Falls Water Treatment Plant, there is disagreement about air monitoring to protect workers. That project cannot be completed until the city moves its plant.

Meanwhile the company will complete a barrier wall between the Niagara River and Robert Moses Parkway to contain chemicals flowing from its main plant and S Area sites.

It's a whopping bill for Occidental. Officials decline to give an exact cost but say $150 million is not an unreasonable estimate. That does not include its share of the $325 million cost of Love Canal which is under review by Federal Judge John T. Curtin. Nor does it include an estimated $5 million a year for the next 35 years to operate and maintain treatment facilities at the big sites.

The lesson for American industry from thousands of toxic dumps has been a costly one. Some are willing to pay and others are trying to dodge. Consumers in the past may have gotten a bargain by cheaper goods because of sloppy dumping. But this generation and several to come will pay the price. Worst of all has been the cost to public health and the environment, both priceless.

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