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With more than 700 potentially hazardous sites in Niagara County, ranging from vacant gas stations to radioactive waste dumps, a fledgling county committee with a small budget decided Thursday to take the first step toward cleaning them up.

The Brownfields Working Group, a committee of the Niagara County Department of Planning, Development and Tourism, will start modestly. It will spend $5,000 of a $200,000 grant to hire a consulting firm to study what environmental problems exist at the abandoned Dussault Foundry in Lockport and at the site of a former agriculture chemical manufacturer in Barker.

The long range plan for the former foundry, empty since 1995, is to develop a retail-commercial shopping complex on the Washburn street site. Located next to the gutted Union Station in the Lowertown historic district on bluffs overlooking the Erie Canal, the site has great potential, said brownfields coordinator Edmund P. Sullivan.

The redevelopment could be coordinated with the canal revitalization and Union station restoration, he said.

Plans for the 11-acre Barker Chemical plant on West Somerset Road, vacant since the early 1980s, include a combined commercial and residential development.

"Reuse of this site is a priority for the rural community and its neighbor, the Village of Barker," Sullivan said.

The two brownfields marked for cleanup were among two dozen listed as priority sites by the seven-month-old committee.

Working with a grant from the Environmental Protection Agency, the committee will spend a total of $85,000 on a two-phased program at the sites: the first to look for obvious environmental problems, and the second to identify how serious they are and the cost to remedy them. Each phase is expected to take several months.

The third phase would be the removal of all hazardous material, with the fourth and final phase being the redevelopment of the site.

Tackling all 24 brownfields sites on its priority list would take years and cost millions, said Christopher Schmidt, a committee member and environmental assistant with the Department of Community Development in the City of Niagara Falls.

"The city should be ashamed that we have two pages of sites," Schmidt told the committee members, meeting at Niagara County Community College.

The city sites range from several abandoned gas stations to a former Hooker Chemical Co. landfill on 102nd Street.

To clean up all 710 potentially hazardous sites in Niagara County seems an almost impossible task for the small county committee, said Schmidt. Even with additional government grants and matching funds from the municipalities involved, the cost would be staggering, he said.

"We certainly have a real challenge ahead of us," said Sullivan. "Tonight we got the ball rolling. I feel optimistic we can make a difference."

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