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Editorial: Radioactive waste needs to be removed from Tonawanda landfill

Town of Tonawanda residents have reason to be frustrated by the federal government’s foot-dragging over the cleanup of radioactive waste.

And they have reason to be frustrated by the half measures the feds are offering after delaying so long. It is not good enough. Only a full cleanup will do.

Here’s the news: the Army Corps of Engineers has decided to remove from a closed town landfill some, but not all, radioactive waste generated by the Manhattan Project. Residents living nearby have been desperate to get something, anything, done. Sadly, rather than risk losing the half-loaf on offer, many are signing on to the project. The Corps claims its remediation, including removing a 5-foot layer of soil, is a “cost-effective solution.” Residents will be left hoping that the Corps is right in another claim, that the work will protect residents in nearby homes for 1,000 years.

The scene of concern is a 55-acre former landfill north of Interstate 290, next to homes on Hackett Drive in the City of Tonawanda and an industrial park owned by the town. As reported in The News, the landfill’s soil contains “elevated levels of radioactive material, including uranium.” And elevated levels of uranium have been found in groundwater leeching from the landfill.

Under the circumstances, it seems shallow on the part of the Corps to worry about the cost of remediation when the health of citizens is at stake. Yet, there they are balancing the bottom line against what is right. Just for the record, the full price for partial remediation is roughly $12.2 million, according to the Corps’ recent final order.

There has been significant citizen advocacy around the issue but also notable is that officials from the state Department of Environmental Conservation, local government agencies and residents near the landfill pushed for an excavation and treatment of more, not less, of the contaminated soil. The cost: $55.4 million.

The radioactive waste apparently was dumped by companies that were part of the Manhattan Project, the enormous federal effort during World War II to develop the atomic bomb. That gives the federal government the responsibility to take care of the community by removing the waste. The notion of a partial cleanup is unacceptable. It’s taken more than a decade to get to this point, and officials still can’t set a date for the start of work. The Corps said the start of “remedial action” rests on the availability of national program funding, and the completion of cleanups already underway.

Joyce Hogenkamp grew up on Hackett Drive and now lives around the corner from the landfill. Having spent years as the president of Citizens United for Justice lobbying for action at the site, she expressed her anger and frustration that the Corps took years (and years) to reach this decision – scraping away the surface contamination.

She says she won’t leave her home, even though she can cite the number of women who have been stricken by cancer, because someone needs to keep fighting. She calls this plan “better than nothing,” recognizing that the landfill is “at the bottom of the list” for remediation.

The Army Corps of Engineers should use the time waiting for work to start to revisit its short-sighted decision and prepare for a complete cleanup.

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