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Radioactivity fear spurs survey

Property owners around the former Guterl Steel plant have been sent surveys asking whether they have water wells.

If they do, testing may be ordered to see if radioactivity from the plant has leached into the ground water supplying those wells, Niagara County Environmental Health Director James J. Devald said.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers asked for the survey in the wake of findings that radioactive waste had been found in ground water leaking from the walls of the nearby Erie Canal, said Natalie Watson, an outreach official at the Corps.

Trace levels of radioactive uranium were found in tests of the water on the canal walls in December. However, tests of the water in the canal itself were negative for radioactivity.

The Guterl plant on Ohio Street was originally known as Simonds Saw & Steel. That company obtained a contract from the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission in 1948 to process uranium and thorium for use in nuclear weapons.

The work, which continued until 1956, left a legacy of radioactive contamination which keeps two buildings and 18 of the 52 acres at the plant site off-limits to this day.

Guterl Steel later acquired the company, and today the plant is owned by Allegheny Ludlum Corp. and operates under the name Allvac.

There are 17 ground water monitoring wells around the site, but the Corps of Engineers is concerned about civilian wells.

There are no records of where such wells might be, Watson said. Thus the need for the survey of all properties within one mile of the plant, mailed April 30 with a return deadline of May 24.

"The Niagara County Health Department is supposed to keep track of all active wells, but it appears they only do this when someone asks for it," Watson said.

"We didn't have anything, because it's been so long," Devald said.

He and Watson said a few wells have been turned up by the surveys returned so far, but they aren't expecting a large number.

"I do believe that when the city water went in, it was required that everyone had to get it, whether they used it or not," Watson said.