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Trace levels of toxins found in canal near former steel plant site

Trace levels of radioactive uranium attributed to the former Guterl Steel plant in Lockport have been found in water seeping through the walls of the Erie Canal, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said last week.

The December sampling was the first time seeping ground water at the Ohio Street plant was tested, according to Natalie Watson, outreach program specialist for the Guterl site.

However, testing of canal surface water in January showed no uranium, the Corps reported in a newsletter posted on its website.

Radioactive contamination of the site occurred between 1948 and 1956, when the former Simonds Saw and Steel Co. processed uranium and thorium for nuclear weapons under a federal contract with the former Atomic Energy Commission. Guterl Steel was a successor company.

Today, part of the complex is owned by Allegheny Ludlum Corp. and operated under the name Allvac. But some of the property is barred from use because of the radioactive contamination.

"There's a lot of contamination in two of the buildings," Watson said, referring to Buildings 6 and 8. "There's no imminent threat to public human health or the environment. It's not flying around."

Seventeen ground water monitoring wells and the seepage from the nearby canal walls showed radioactive materials moving from the plant site.

"They're pretty much diluted once they hit the canal," Watson said. "They have background levels, but nothing that would get to the [Environmental Protection Agency] standards for water quality."

The testing was part of the run-up to a formal feasibility study on a possible cleanup plan for the polluted 18 acres, which includes a 9-acre landfill and the land covered by the contaminated buildings, also known as the "excised property."

Allegheny Ludlum owns 52 acres, which is sometimes called the Niagara County Industrial Development Agency because of a past tax break the company received from the IDA. A private lot north of the landfill and a railroad right of way also have been part of the Corps of Engineers' probe.

The feasibility study should be completed by the end of this year, Watson said.

After that, a remediation plan and a record of decision must by approved by the Corps, which is responsible for cleanup at former weapons-related sites.

"It'll take a good year for the proposed plan to be completed, and another six months for the record of decision," Watson predicted. "There will be a cleanup, but it'll be several years away."

After the planning is done, the Corps will have to wait for funding from Congress to do the work, she explained.

The Corps' newsletter said the uranium seepage won't harm recreational use of the canal, and it said that uranium doesn't accumulate in fish, so anglers don't have to worry about it.