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Area activists blast Corps of Engineers
Army agency accused of harming progress of radiological, chemical cleanup

Federal regulators got an earful Wednesday night from several community members who continued to push for a more meaningful exchange of information with the Army Corps of Engineers about the ongoing investigation of radiological and chemical contamination in Lewiston and Porter.

During a public meeting in the Lewiston Senior Center, residents and community leaders continued to argue that the Corps of Engineers should recognize an existing advisory board for the Lake Ontario Ordnance Works, a former federal weapons production and storage site. The Niagara Falls Storage Site, a 191-acre parcel on the former ordnance works site, stores radioactive waste from the Manhattan Project.

Two years ago, the Army Corps announced it no longer recognized the Restoration Advisory Board and said it wanted to form a new board, which it said was required under federal regulations.

At the time, the state attorney general's office called the move to dissolve the board "illegal."

Wednesday night's meeting, which was attended by about two dozen members of the public and just as many government agency representatives, included a presentation by the Army Corps about the process of forming a new advisory board, a proposal many in the community have become frustrated with since they believe the community has already overwhelmingly rejected the idea of the board.

Current board members balked at the officials' proposal at the meeting, which they said prevented real issues about contamination at the site from being discussed. The change in the agency's view of the board's status has left it less able to adequately protect the community's interests, said R. Nils Olsen Jr., who was co-chairman of the initial advisory board formed in 1999 and is former dean of the University at Buffalo Law School.

"At least the artist formerly known as Prince made his own decision to change his name," Olsen said. "I can honestly say that . . . I guess we're called the community involvement group, formerly known as the RAB, did not play any role in redefining our process."

Olsen continued: "There was never a mutual agreement that we would relinquish that [status] and assume a basically impotent, reactive status as a unofficial community group of volunteers."

The agency's view of the board has hurt the community because regulators continue to move ahead with investigation and cleanup plans, but do not allow the board to review and have input on plans, opportunities it used to have, said Joseph A. Gardella, chairman of the advisory board and a University at Buffalo chemistry professor.

The Army Corps has been "disingenuous" in the way it describes how the situation evolved, said Gardella, who contends the agency is even violating its own rules. Olsen referred to how the Army Corps describes the changes in the board's status as "revisionist history."

Corps officials said they are required, under federal regulations, to evaluate interest in "an official Department of Defense RAB" every two years.

But Lewiston resident Amy Witryol asserted that only needs to be done when an advisory board doesn't already exist.

Wednesday night's meeting, which was one of the regular quarterly meetings the Army Corps has held in Lewiston, was attended by representatives of numerous agencies, including the state Department of Environmental Conservation, the Niagara County Department of Health and the state attorney general's office.

The agency's quarterly meetings have created an atmosphere similar to the "dysfunctional" ones that happened during the first version of the advisory board, Olsen said. The entire advisory board structure was reorganized in 2003, and was called an "advisory board" for its entire existence until 2008 by the agency, he said.

e-mail: abesecker@buffnews.com

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