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PORTER - CWM Chemical Services likens the severity of its landfill contents to a teaspoon of hazardous material in a truckload of dirt.

Yet at a hearing in July on the company's request to add a landfill to its site on Balmer Road, a protester showed up in a skeleton mask and a barrel painted with the skull and crossbones.

And other hearings on the company's plans for rezoning 75 acres of its 600-acre property have been just as contentious. Area residents say enough is enough. They can't take any more hazardous waste or any kind of garbage - 325,000 tons were placed in landfills last year - so close to their homes and within a mile of the Lewiston-Porter Central Schools.

Even that "teaspoon in a truckload" analogy is lost on them.

"The residents here have had more than their share of toxins," said Dr. David Cooper, an environmentalist and neurosurgeon who has lived in the Town of Lewiston for 37 years. "We don't want any more."

But CWM, a $6 million subsidiary of the multimillion-dollar worldwide company Waste Management Inc., wants to create the new landfill "to meet demands over the next 15 years," said general manager Dominic Maruca. Company officials say their landfills are safely sealed and not dangerous, and that their monetary and philanthropic contributions to the surrounding communities make them a good and necessary citizen.

The controversy is complicated and confusing to local residents. Just what does CWM bury at the landfill? What is the company's relationship with surrounding waste dumps well known to the area's residents? What power do surrounding towns have to promote or prevent the proposed rezoning?

Safety record stressed

CWM stresses that it buries no radioactive waste, no explosives, no dioxins, no compressed liquids or gases and no discarded hospital material, to name a few items on a long list of what is disallowed in the landfill.

"It's a tough business, and the word "hazardous' doesn't help," said Maruca. "But we're an environmental company. We help manage the environment and we have one of the safest companies in the nation."

Typical examples of hazardous waste received at the landfill include soils with trace levels of chemicals, industrial sludges, ash from incinerators and contaminated debris from former brownfields and remediated sites, said Rebecca Zayatz, the company's environmental engineering manager.

"There's a misconception about what goes into our landfill," she said. "People throw that word "dump' around. This is not a dump, it's an engineered, state-of-the-art landfill."

Zayatz, one of the 24 engineers and scientists among CWM's 100-strong work force, said 7 feet of clay and plastic linings in the landfills have several built-in redundancy systems.

At the bottom of the landfill is the first "barrier layer," consisting of three feet of compacted, impermeable clay, topped with a high-density plastic liner. On top of that is the first "drainage layer," consisting of gravel, paired with a plastic mesh through which any waste water can flow.

"If there is any contaminated water down there, our aim is to pump it out," Zayatz said. "If there is no water, there can be no leaks."

A second series of barrier and drainage layers are added onto the first, making a built-in redundancy system, she said. Once full, the landfill is similarly capped with the clay and plastic liners.

"In more than 20 years of monitoring the site, there has never been any indication the landfill has ever leaked," Zayatz said.

Opposition called extensive

Opposition to an additional landfill at CWM is loud and widespread.

"Being elected by the people, I am the voice of the people," said Porter Supervisor Merton Wiepert. "And all I hear from the residents is to say no to CWM's request."

The company's impact on the Western New York economy from payroll, taxes, and purchase of goods and services amounts to up to $30 million a year, according to CWM estimates.

CWM pays 2 percent of its annual revenues to the Town of Porter, 2 percent to the Town of Lewiston and 2 percent is split among the school districts of Lewiston-Porter, Niagara-Wheatfield and Wilson - totaling more than $27 million since 1987.

The company also pays $500,000 annually in property taxes to the towns and school districts.

Under the proposed new host community agreement with the Town of Porter, CWM will guarantee an additional $3 million by 2007, and after the proposed new landfill opens, the town will receive $3 for every ton of hazardous material trucked into the site. Based on the 325,000 tons trucked in last year, that would add another $1 million-plus to the town's coffers.

The question remains, noted Porter Councilman Richard Phoenix, "Does two or three million dollars a year make all this worthwhile?

"CWM has striven to maintain an excellent relationship with the local community," Maruca said. "I think we're a great neighbor."

Local charities, fire companies, libraries and Mount St. Mary's Hospital were listed among the beneficiaries of CWM support.

Nevertheless, the majority of statements and petitions received by the Town of Porter from the public hearing are opposed to the expansion, Wiepert said.

At a hearing July 11 in the Lewiston-Porter High School, about a mile from the CWM landfill, Susan Wiepert, a physical therapist at Children's Hospital in Buffalo and Merton Wiepert's daughter, was pleading to stop the expansion.

"Please say no to the expansion," she said. "Please don't put a price on our health."

But the Porter Planning Board has already approved the rezoning to permit the landfill expansion, which now only needs Town Board permission to go ahead, said Supervisor Wiepert.

The Town of Lewiston, which also plays host to part of the CWM property, went on record Aug. 27 as opposing the landfill expansion, said Deputy Town Clerk Carol Schroeder.

The Lewiston-Porter School Board and Residents Organized for Lewiston-Porter Environment are among other major local opponents to the expansion.

"You've got a poisonous brew of radioactive waste in the former storage site, hazardous material at CWM and garbage at Modern, all within two square miles of each other," said ROLE president Timothy Henderson.

The Town Board is currently seeking the opinion of environment attorney Daniel Spitzer of the Buffalo law firm, Hodgson Russ Andrews Woods and Goodyear. The matter won't be voted on by the five members of the Town Board until all the information is in, Wiepert said.

But Wiepert makes no bones about his own personal opposition to the rezoning.

"My decision on this request is that it be denied," said Wiepert. "The Town Board has to take into consideration that the company has 10 years of available land to construct new landfills without a zoning change."

Maruca said the life span of the overall site is closer to 15 years and the company could, in fact, use land currently zoned for hazardous materials. But that would mean demolishing existing buildings and expensive reconstruction of the site.

Three of the councilmen on the Porter Town Board, Phoenix, David Lisman and Harris Harrington, said before making a decision, they need more data, such as Spitzer's report and CWM answers to questions raised at the public hearing.

The zoning request was first submitted to the Town Board in April 1999. If endorsed by the Town Board, approvals from the state Department of Environmental Conservation and the federal Environmental Protection Agency and further public hearings would take up to four years, the company says.

Traffic another issue

A less toxic issue is the CWM truck traffic that barrels along Creek Road in front of the Lewiston Porter schools on its way to the Balmer Road site. Under the agreement with the town, the 18-wheelers and dump trucks are not supposed to roll as a convoy, keeping a quarter-mile apart, and are not allowed to operate during peak school hours: between 7:30 a.m. and 9 a.m. and between 2:15 p.m. and 3:45 p.m.

But the downside of that, say people who live along the truck route, is that the trucks have to run in the early hours of the morning, waking up residents, and in the early evening, further disturbing the tranquility of the rural community.

Maruca said he tries to keep a close watch on the traffic. He said he has sat in his car outside the schools at 5 a.m. personally checking on the trucks.

While formerly opposing the landfill expansion, Lewiston-Porter School Superintendent Walter Polka said the truck traffic is pretty much under control.

CWM said there would be no increase in truck traffic and no change in the amount of waste received if the new landfill is allowed. The company said it would maintain a 300-foot buffer area between waste management units and any residence or public street. Currently the nearest home is more than a quarter-mile from the operational area of the site, the company said.

Company offers tours

In its continuing effort to educate people about the CWM operation, the company regularly offers tours for schoolchildren, budding environmental scientists and engineers and the general public.

But it always ends up being a tough sell.

The company's public relations person is Youngstown resident George Spira, who is also the chairman of the Porter Planning Board.

"That's quite a conflict of interest," said Cooper, who is a member of environmental commissions in Lewiston and Niagara County.

But Spira said he abstains from voting on all CWM matters.

One of the company's public relations problems is that CWM forms one corner of what residents call the toxic triangle. Niagara Falls Storage Site, where contaminated nuclear waste from World War II's Manhattan Project was buried and consolidated, and Modern Disposal, a garbage company, form the other points. All of it is about a mile from the Lewiston-Porter school system with a combined enrolment of 2,500 students.

"A lot of people lump all these together and that's a misconception," said CWM spokesman Scott Matter. "They are three separate entities and CWM must follow very strict regulations."

Both the company and the Department of Environmental Conservation monitor the site, testing the air and ground water on a 24-hour basis. DEC scientists have permanent facilities on the property.

"We have had our concerns at the site, but typically the company does rectify them," said James Strickland, the DEC's regional hazardous materials engineer.