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Environmentally avant-garde film set to debut

LOCKPORT – A Swiss-Australian filmmaker who decided that a detailed look at the federal Superfund site at Eighteen Mile Creek would be a good way to earn a master’s degree in fine arts will publicly premiere her work this week.

The debut showing of Tanya Stadelmann’s movie “This Creek” is scheduled for 6 p.m. Thursday in the Kenan Center’s Taylor Theatre, 433 Locust St. It’s free and open to the public.

“This is a classic environmental justice story,” Stadelmann said. “For me, the most important thing was, people felt silenced and they felt neglected by the city. They were extremely grateful that I spent the time to talk to them and interview them, that I took an interest in the story.”

Stadelmann said the film, whose running time is 33 minutes, took her two years to shoot and was edited down from 50 hours of raw footage, including numerous interviews with Lockport-area residents.

Stadelmann said Shirley A. Nicholas, the Mill Street activist who lives across the street from the old Flintkote plant, which is believed to be the epicenter of the creek’s contamination, is one of those to be seen on-screen.

“She and I are real good friends,” said Nicholas, who this fall will be running for the 1st Ward seat on the Common Council for the second time. “She’s a super person. She deserves all the credit you can give her.”

Stadelmann said the movie is her master’s thesis. She is studying at the University at Buffalo’s media studies department, to which she received a scholarship, in hopes that the master’s will lead to a full-time teaching job. She has worked at Point Park University in Pittsburgh as a part-time instructor in film production.

“It isn’t a standard, traditional documentary, like an exposé or an investigative piece,” Stadelmann said. She called it “experimental” with “an avant-garde approach.”

She added, “This is the version that I’m submitting as my master’s project. However, I plan to continue working on it and making it sort of an hour segment on television.”

The Flintkote story is a tale of the city, county and state balking at doing what needed to be done because of cost concerns before the federal government stepped in.

Demolition of Flintkote, a rotting hulk since a 1971 fire ruined the building materials plant, began last fall and is to be completed by the end of May. After that, the federal Environmental Protection Agency will conduct more tests on the site to decide what to do next.

The EPA also decided to buy five homes on Water Street in Lockport, across the creek from Flintkote, whose backyards were covered with polluted water containing cancer-causing PCBs and other chemicals every time the creek rose. The deals were made last fall, and the residents have been relocated and the homes are to be demolished.

For decades, the City of Lockport refused to foreclose on Flintkote, despite the unpaid property taxes, because it would have been stuck with the cleanup bill. Niagara County foreclosed in 1999, when the assistant county attorney assigned to tax foreclosures, Richard C. Kloch Sr., now a State Supreme Court justice, included Flintkote on the foreclosure list, not realizing it was an environmental hazard.

Not surprisingly, no one bought it at the ensuing foreclosure auction in February 2000. The county tried to sue its title search company, which folded before that suit got anywhere.

At the time, Kloch told The Buffalo News that he could have gone to court and had the foreclosure list amended to take Flintkote out, but he refused to do so.

“Something, sometime, someday has got to happen to that property for the benefit of the people who live around there,” Kloch said in August 1999.

In 2002 and 2003, the county spent $107,000 on testing, which showed that there were 46,500 cubic yards of ash fill at Flintkote, containing assorted semivolatile organic compounds and metals.

The county got the EPA to remove some asbestos and perform limited demolitions in 2001 and 2002, but opted out of a larger cleanup because of a $6 million cost estimate. The state Department of Environmental Conservation came in and planned a state Superfund cleanup, but it was never funded, as the state decided it couldn’t afford the $22 million price tag. Instead, as far back as the fall of 2010, the DEC asked the EPA to come in.

But it was the current lieutenant governor, then-Rep. Kathy Hochul, during her brief stint in Congress in 2011-12, who supplied the push necessary to get the EPA to take over the creek corridor from the DEC and place it on the Superfund list.

Stadelmann, who will give a brief talk before the projector rolls Thursday and answer questions afterward, said the point of her film is to try to trigger an emotional response among its viewers.

For one segment, Stadelmann took her camera underwater, diving into Eighteen Mile Creek to shoot footage of submerged drums presumably containing toxic waste.

“I actually got a shot of a submerged broken barrel,” she said. “I wanted people to see what it looks like underwater. Everyone was talking about all the toxins and I wanted to get that footage. I also went to Newfane Dam to get close-up shots of the chemical flume, and I also got shots of sewage in the creek. I wanted to show what is in the creek. That’s what film is good about.”

She differentiated Newfane Dam from the better-known Burt Dam. “Most people don’t know about it. It’s a dam that a lot of people don’t realize is there. It’s the dam above Burt Dam. I shot at the Burt Dam, as well,” Stadelmann said.

The sewage overflows were shot in Lockport’s Gulf Wilderness Park, where malfunctions in the city sewer system have led to untreated sewage entering the creek.

“I interviewed a dozen people,” Stadelmann said. “I would have interviewed more, but it was hard to get people to participate. People were afraid. Some people were still working in the factories and were worried about their jobs, or they had family working in jobs.”

Among those declining to be interviewed were the relocated residents of Water Street. She does have film of retirees, including a former Flintkote employee, Ken Pelletier, who has had health problems.

“There’s a lot of people talking about illness, experiencing their families getting sick,” Stadelmann said. No formal health study has ever been done along the creek, although cancer rates are believed to be high.

Also, there are people voicing their memories of fishing in the creek. Today, the state has an advisory urging that no fish caught in the creek are to be consumed, but Stadelmann noted that there are still some fish-cleaning stations along the creek.

Other grist for Stadelmann’s creative mill was found in archival material from the Niagara County Historical Society and old educational films. She also used recordings of a Shirley Nicholas appearance on a WLVL-AM radio talk show that led to the program’s then-host, Donna Pieszala, connecting Nicholas with Hochul, after Nicholas complained on the air about the city reassessing the value of her home upward despite its proximity to Flintkote.

“I think it’s important that these stories are released to the public,” Stadelmann said. “The point was to get a conversation going in Lockport. A lot of people still don’t know about it. I’ve seen children playing in Upson Park, in hot spots near the creek, and I’ve seen people still taking salmon home to eat despite the warnings. There’s a lot of denial in the area.”