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State should expand the boundaries for cleanup at Lackawanna incinerator site

The contamination around the old Lackawanna incinerator site is more extensive than previously known, a fact that should compel the state to expand the area eligible for Superfund cleanup.

The city burned garbage in the incinerator from the 1920s until 1980. The contamination likely resulted from the disposal of incinerator ash on the site, an act that would be unthinkable today. The revelation that heavy metals and carcinogenic chemicals contaminate several more acres complicates the cleanup task.

State environmental and health officials are asking for a more than 55 percent expansion of the incinerator’s 7.6-acre Superfund footprint, adding 4 acres to the site at 2960 South Park Ave.

While the request should be granted, it could present a major problem for the City of Lackawanna if the contamination is determined to be the fault of the municipality. As The News has reported, the state Superfund will take responsibility for the initial cost for cleanup. However, Department of Environmental Conservation officials could seek reimbursement from the city for those costs.

Lackawanna would be financially devastated if that happens, and the state should be prepared to shoulder most of the burden.

A recent DEC notice said studies of the four additional acres revealed elevated levels of toxic lead, arsenic and other contaminants in adjoining properties, including the nearby southern bank of Smokes Creek.

Two red brick incinerator structures are still at the site, visible just over the eastern goalposts at Lackawanna Veterans Stadium. The stadium is next to the Superfund site to the west.

Here’s a piece of good news: While contamination was found in surface and subsurface soils, a sampling did not reveal contaminants in either the waters of Smokes Creek or its sediment. Still, people passing by the creek bank or along a nearby recreation trail are at risk of exposure if the site is not cleared.

An investigation conducted last year found “elevated concentrations of inorganic constituents,” including arsenic and lead, on nearby property operated by Baker Victory Services. That has resulted in the removal of contaminated soil at a cost of about $1 million.

We know now that the incinerator ash should never have been dumped on the site. But that mistake should not be made worse by leaving it there. The entire incinerator site now must receive the attention it urgently needs.