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Corps of Engineers seeking plan for ordnance works; Flow chart released last week outlines steps required before cleaning up part of the site

Work on highly toxic explosives for World War II bombs and radioactive nuclear components for the atomic bomb ended 70 years ago at the former Lake Ontario Ordnance Works, but it's anybody's guess as to when the contaminated residues will finally -- if ever -- be removed.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, saddled with the daunting task of cleaning up after a previous generation's war, distributed a flow chart last week showing that it still is developing technical memoranda for a small portion of the old ordnance works now called an Interim Waste Containment Structure.

The chart does not deal with the much larger part of the ordnance works now called the Niagara Falls Storage Site.

The Interim Waste Containment Structure and the adjacent Niagara Falls Storage Site are being managed under different government programs and different rules.

Many Lewiston-Porter residents see little distinction between the Waste Containment Structure and the Storage Site; they both are part of the former ordnance works. And people want the whole works cleaned up so there will be no more contamination, no more uranium radiation.

The long-delayed cleanup effort has become such a contentious issue that two separate citizens' groups have emerged in local efforts to "advise" the Corps of Engineers on how to proceed.

The final decision will rest at the highest level of the Department of Defense -- with Jo-Ellen Darcy, the assistant secretary of the Army for civil works who supervises the Corps of Engineers. At the current rate of progress, Darcy may be long gone from government service by the time the local remediation is finished. She is an appointee of the Obama administration, and it appears unlikely that the job will be finished during this president's watch, even if he is re-elected this year to a new four-year term.

The Corps of Engineers' flow chart for the Interim Waste Containment Structure shows that its technical memoranda are being prepared, and a feasibility study is scheduled for next year. A proposed plan isn't due until 2014.

Then there will be a period during 2014 for the public to make formal comments on whatever plan may be proposed. After the comments are gathered, the Corps plans to record its decision on how to proceed in 2015.

At that point, the detailed design of a remedial program will not have started. The Corps issued no prediction on how long the design would take, not to mention how long any actual remedial action might take or whether there would be enough money to pay for it.

Eventually, though, the Army hopes to close out the site, step aside and turn the property over to the U.S. Department of Energy.

The Army's literature on the subject promises "interaction with the public and agencies throughout the process." This last promise may be easier said than done, because it is unclear who really speaks for the majority of the Lewiston-Porter community.

The 15-member Niagara County Legislature has unanimously gone on record in support of a Lake Ontario Ordnance Works (LOOW) Restoration Advisory Board that was officially established in 1999 to represent the community in dealing with the government. The Corps of Engineers says that board was dissolved in 2002.

Lt. Col. Stephen H. Bales, commander of the Buffalo District of the Corps, has sent an open letter to Lewiston-Porter residents asking them whether the board should be re-established.

Bales' states that "the corps is required to reassess possible community interest" in forming a restoration board every two years.

Corps spokesman Bruce Sanders said the letter is intended "to determine whether there is enough interest" in establishing a new board. Sanders said similar letters have gone out every two years, and "it was determined that sufficient interest did not exist."

Some strongly disagree with the Corps' contention. They say the Restoration Advisory Board -- commonly called the RAB -- never was dissolved, continues to meet and "continues to this day to provide the community and Corps with information and analysis on activities at the Lake Ontario Ordnance Works."

RAB Chairman William Choboy said, "A new RAB would sharply curtail the level of public participation and community influence afforded the current RAB." The initials are pronounced "rab," rhyming with the first syllable of the word "rabbit."

Vice Chairman Alfonso Marra Bax said, "The current RAB protects procedural rights of stakeholders that cannot be grandfathered or delegated to a new RAB or the nonregulated Community Advisory Council (CAC)."

Ann Roberts, identified as technical chairwoman of the RAB, has criticized the Corps' techniques in monitoring contamination at the former ordnance works. She said environmental investigations suggest that contamination could be leaking from the underground Interim Waste Containment Structure.

Then there are those who say there is no RAB. Some former members of the RAB now serve on the newly formed CAC, and they readily agree that their council is not formally recognized nor formally regulated by the Corps of Engineers. One of them said he recalls making the motion that officially dissolved the RAB.

The Corps of Engineers has hired Douglas Sarno as a "technical facilitator" to help sort out the differing public opinions.

Sarno said last week that he wants to "put to rest" the controversy between the CAC and the previously organized RAB. "We are trying to minimize confusion," he said. "The CAC has offered to reach out to the RAB to see if they could consolidate and work together."

Joseph A. Gardella Jr., a co-chairman of the CAC, said state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman "is not participating in either group. He does not want to appear to endorse one or the other. He doesn't want to get in the middle between the two groups."

Gardella's co-chairman at the CAC is William Boeck.

The two groups met separately last week. The CAC met Monday and the RAB Steering Committee met on Tuesday. Both public meetings were on the Lewiston-Porter Central School campus.

An email message from the RAB administration said, "Thanks to the 100 percent community volunteers who funded the creation and maintenance of the LOOW RAB website:"

The Department of Defense acquired 7,500 acres near the Lewiston-Porter town line in 1941 and built the Lake Ontario Ordnance Works to manufacture trinitrotoluene, or TNT, during World War II. TNT production facilities were built on about 2,500 acres, and the remaining 5,000 acres were left undeveloped. The army manufactured TNT there for about nine months.

The TNT plant was decommissioned in 1943, and the 5,000 acres of undeveloped land was declared excess and was disposed of to private landowners. Present owners include the Lewiston-Porter School District, local and federal governments, individual homeowners and private corporations such as Chemical Waste Management Co. and Modern Disposal Services.

About 1,500 acres in the southern portion of the ordnance works production area were transferred to the Manhattan Engineering District, which later became the Atomic Energy Commission and then the Department of Energy. The Manhattan Engineering District worked on development of the atomic bomb.

The Department of Energy still owns 191 acres of that property, now known as the Niagara Falls Interim Storage Structure, at 1397 Pletcher Road, near the Lewiston-Porter town line. Until 1952, radioactive waste and residue were taken there for storage.

The structure is called "interim" because no final decision has been made on whether the residue should remain there or be moved to a permanent disposal site, probably in another state.

The containment structure consists of the filled-in basements of buildings that were torn down long ago at the former ordnance works. The basements have been sealed with clay walls and caped with material intended to prevent any leaks into the ground or air.