Soil and slag with low levels of radioactive material – a remnant of the steel-making process that once took place at RiverBend in South Buffalo – would be buried underneath a foot of clean soil at two locations on the property where workers are finishing the SolarCity solar panel factory.
About 50,000 cubic yards of the contaminated soil – enough to fill nearly seven blimps – would be buried on 10 to 15 acres of the 90-acre site, according to a plan from the state’s Colleges of Nanoscale Science and Engineering.
A smaller amount – not quite enough to fill a blimp – would be taken to a hazardous-waste landfill in Ohio.
The level of radiation detected at the site about a year ago does not pose a threat to human health, officials said.
And the plan to bury the soil and slag “will not have a significant adverse environmental impact,” according to a notice filed with the state Department of Environmental Conservation.
“It’s not really a health hazard. It’s a material that has to be handled in accordance with DEC guidelines,” said Thomas E. O’Brien, associate vice president at the Colleges of Nanoscale Science and Engineering at SUNY Polytechnic Institute in Albany.
Work is expected to begin after documents are finalized within the next week or so.
On March 20, 2015, an unearthed iron ore kettle once used by Republic Steel tripped radiation sensors at a Lewiston landfill, where it was taken for disposal during excavation for the SolarCity project.
The discovery of such an item is not common on brownfield sites, but it spurred the need to evaluate the degree of radiological contamination spread over the site.
Some local environmentalists said the discovery of the radioactive material at RiverBend – a site the DEC had already cleared as clean for industrial use after a 2002 remediation was completed – shows the need for thorough environmental reviews at brownfield sites.
“An environmental-impact statement properly done at the time would have identified existing soil contamination,” said Arthur J. Giacalone, a Buffalo lawyer who specializes in environmental cases. “The college’s proposal to use 10 or more acres of the 90-acre RiverBend parcel for on-site disposal of radioactive sludge material is a sobering omen of what may lie ahead.”
Not considered health danger
State officials said the material poses no threat to humans or the environment.
The radiation levels in the slag are so low that workers at the site were not required to wear additional protective clothing.
A worker who spends an entire year in an area with those levels would receive a dose of radiation roughly equivalent to the amount of cosmic radiation that a person gets during the course of a year, according to a report on the radiological activity at the site.
The contaminated slag was uncovered last year during excavation work at the former Republic Steel and Hanna Furnace site.
The radioactivity of the material the state recommends burying falls below the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s exposure thresholds for reuse as fill.
The material would be buried in a 10-acre area near the southern “toe” of the RiverBend site and a 5-acre area between the SolarCity building and South Park Avenue, where construction trailers were placed during construction, according to plans. The 10-acre area is where material will first be buried. A separate 5-acre site would be used once that 10 acres reach capacity.
These are low-lying areas on the site which need to be “built up” anywhere from a few inches to a yard, and the low-level slag can accomplish that, officials said. That material to be taken to Ohio includes about 1,000 cubic yards of commingled petroleum and slag taken from hot spots at the site. It tested too high to be used as fill.
“It was not a public health danger; it was more of an environmental concern,” O’Brien said.
The plan comes as the state officials consider updating rules on what to do with this kind of waste.
Federal and state environmental agencies define the material as “technology-enhanced, naturally occurring radioactive material.”
It starts as naturally occurring low-level radiation found in rocks, soil and water. At RiverBend, it was a byproduct of an industry that once turned iron ore into steel. Radioactive remnants stayed behind in the slag.
Currently, the DEC’s Cleanup Guidelines for Soils Contaminated with Radioactive Materials designate that “acceptable remediation procedures” include removing the contaminated soil for disposal at a licensed facility, or covering it with clean soil or other methods approved by the agency “on a case-by-case basis.”
Haste cited in project approval
The DEC said the process for cleaning up brownfields worked at the RiverBend site.
Upon discovering the low-level radioactive material at RiverBend, “the state DEC immediately acted to ensure the safe and responsible cleanup of the site to protect workers,” the DEC told The Buffalo News in a statement. “The material, which is under several feet of clean fill, does not pose a threat to the health of workers, the public or the environment.”
The statement added: “Any higher concentration … discovered at the site will be shipped off-site to an out-of-state authorized disposal site as part of DEC’s commitment to ensuring public health and safety.”
Giacalone contends that the SolarCity project was hastily undertaken by state officials “in the midst of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s re-election campaign” of 2014. He called building the huge complex without fully investigating its long-term environmental implications “inexcusable.”
“Even more problematic, the byproducts of manufacturing solar panels at the RiverBend site have never been identified publicly. We cannot rationally and responsibly research, develop and manufacture ‘clean energy’ products if the processes involved could harm the surrounding environs, include the fragile Lake Erie shoreline,” Giacalone said.
Riverkeeper isn’t alarmed
Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper Executive Director Jill M. Jedlicka, however, is not alarmed by what was found at RiverBend.
“As we understand it, previous work on the site achieved commercial cleanup requirements, which meant that it was determined that the site was no longer contributing chemical contamination to the (Buffalo) River,” Jedlicka said.
Riverkeeper was intimately involved in the cleanup at RiverBend along the Buffalo River shoreline.
“During our shoreline-restoration project, we did unexpectedly encounter some … material, and therefore coordinated with the landowner, who, in turn, worked with the DEC to test and manage the material,” Jedlicka said.
Part of the remediation efforts along the more than 6-mile Buffalo River corridor in recent years included installation of protective shoreline barriers at RiverBend to protect the river from any toxic contamination running off from the site either above or below ground.