Workers will be on Lewiston Road this week, but the $10 million reconstruction of the treacherous thoroughfare won't start until four radioactive "hot spots" beneath the pavement are cleaned up and tested.
"There is no danger," City Engineer Robert Curtis said of the excavation work being undertaken this week by subcontractor SJB Services of Hamburg. "We'll be excavating down to where we see the slag, put a shovel in and throw it into a cooler, which will be sealed off with duct tape and sent to a lab [for testing]."
A 1986 federal report identified higher-than-normal radioactive levels on Lewiston Road, assumed to be due to phosphorous slag that might have fallen out of trucks taking the waste to the former Lake Ontario Ordnance Works site in Lewiston and Porter.
Radium and uranium, two radioactive elements, occur naturally in that type of slag, said James J. Devald, Niagara County's environmental health director.
Some nearby residents have expressed concern over the material to city lawmakers and other officials.
Curtis said the state Department of Environmental Conservation responded to one homeowner with a letter that said the only way for the material to be harmful to a person is if they stood on the site for 12 hours a day for more than a year.
He said all the radioactive material -- which is under the pavement and some driveway aprons -- will be removed regardless of the outcome of the tests.
If the material is deemed to be a low level of radioactivity, it can be dumped at Allied/BFI Waste Systems of North America, the Falls landfill where waste was taken when Porter Road was rebuilt.
However, if it is deemed a harmful substance it will be shipped to Utah, which Curtis said is the only place in the country accepting high-level radioactive material.
"The difference between the two outcomes is that it costs $80 a truck for BFI," he said, "as compared to $100,000 to ship the material to Utah."
Devald and city officials agreed in October that when bid notices for the reconstruction of the street are released they will inform bidders of the radiation issue. The winning company must have a health and safety plan in place, and be prepared to remove and dispose of the nuclear waste.
Curtis said the project to reconstruct the pothole-filled road is being funded with 80 percent federal money, 15 percent state and 5 percent local.
The money secured for the project would cover the cost of dumping waste locally, but not if it is deemed hazardous, he said.
After the testing and removal, Curtis said, construction is expected to begin this spring or early summer, and wrap up by the end of 2008 or early 2009.
The sight of workers on the road was welcome to City Councilman Chris A. Robins, who lives in the DeVeaux neighborhood and asks about the status of the Lewiston Road project at almost every Council meeting.
"I have gone through many of the streets in Niagara Falls and if it's not the worst, it's got to be in the top three," he said Wednesday.
Robins said most of the neighborhood is aware of the promises from city and county officials that material will be disposed of properly.
"Some people are saying, 'I might be willing to die a year early as long as I don't die of potholes,' " he quipped.