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EPA proposes excavating lead-laden soil at 26 Lockport homes

Stanley Czaplicki likes growing vegetables in his Lockport backyard.

"Then all of a sudden I saw the EPA down at the other end of the street," he recalled Friday. "They were testing soil."

Now, the Environmental Protection Agency wants to excavate the soil on his property as well as 25 other parcels in the city's neighborhood east of the former Flintkote plant.

The federal agency Friday disclosed plans to excavate soil containing elevated levels of lead from the 26 properties. The Flintkote plant is believed to be one of the primary sources of pollution that made a Superfund site of the entire length of Eighteen Mile Creek, from Lockport to Olcott.

Czaplicki still grows tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers this year, and plans to eat them, despite what the EPA advises.

"I asked one of the senior EPA guys if he thought that was a good idea," Czaplicki said. "He said, 'No, not really.' "

If the $6.7 million project wins final approval, work would begin next year or in 2020, EPA spokesman Michael Basile said.

Residential soil excavations are not unprecedented. The state Department of Environmental Conservation has been excavating soil for 22 years in Middleport because of high arsenic levels blamed on the FMC Corp. plant. The EPA excavated more than 100 properties near the NL Industries site at Walden Avenue and Transit Road in Depew between 2005 and 2010 because of lead contamination.

In Lockport in the meantime, Basile said residents have been told it's safe to live in Lockport's Lowertown district, but they should take precautions, such as cleaning their shoes after walking on their lawns.

"We kind of suggested to people if they were going to be putting in a garden, not to," Basile said.

The proposal calls for the removal and off-site disposal of about 14,000 cubic yards of soil from the properties on Mill, Chapel, North Adam, Porter and Frost streets. The EPA would replace the contaminated dirt with clean soil.

That means digging from 6 to 18 inches deep, depending on the test results on each property where soil samples were taken last year, Basile said.

"If we have to go deeper, we will," Basile said.

"Take it all. Fill it," said Czaplicki of North Adam Street.

"Get it out of here," agreed Harold Fitzsimmons of Mill Street, another affected resident. "I know they talked about one spot in the back of my backyard that they said that's the highest concentration."

Asked if he's worried about that, Fitzsimmons said: "After living here for 30 years, what's the point? If I got it, I got it."

"I'm not worried for me. I'm worried about the kids here in the neighborhood," Czaplicki said. "It's going to affect the young kids more than it's going to affect me."

EPA map of Eighteen Mile Creek Corridor in Lockport shows excavation zone in red at upper center. Flintkote property is in purple.

The EPA also evaluated a cheaper $3 million option, removing only 6 inches of soil and placing a membrane under the clean replacement soil to seal in any lead beneath it, but the agency decided that wouldn't do enough to protect residents.

Flintkote, which went out of business after a 1971 fire, produced sound-deadening felt for use in vehicles. The site had been a paper mill and, before that, a sawmill, dating back to the 1830s.

Basile said the EPA believes that wind blew the lead onto the home lots.

"The lead that we found matches the fingerprint from Eighteen Mile Creek, forensically," he said.

Test results on four other properties on North Adam Street are not in yet, so the number of excavated properties may rise to 30, Basile said.

One of those four homeowners, Kathleen Rounds, said she favors excavation if her yard's test results show high lead levels.

"I don't know if it makes me nervous because I've lived here so long," said Rounds, a 30-year resident. "I always make jokes about it. I say we have big-size ants because I live near the chemical company."

The EPA has called a public meeting on its plans for 7 p.m. Aug. 16 at the 4-H Training Center, 4487 Lake Ave., Lockport, and also began a 30-day public comment period on the plan Friday.

Residents were to receive phone calls from the EPA on Friday with an offer for private meetings about the lead on their properties, Basile said.

In 2013, the EPA decided to buy out five residents on Water Street, on the west bank of the creek across from the Flintkote plant, because high creek waters washed water containing cancer-causing PCBs onto their properties.

By 2015, the purchases were made and the houses were demolished. The EPA also tore down the ruins of Flintkote in 2014 and 2015.

Tests on the 26 properties to be excavated show few or no PCBs, but any there would be removed along with the lead, the report says.

The EPA also has a $23 million plan on tap to removed contaminated sediment from the creek bed in Lockport.

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