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Another Voice: What, me worry about radioactive waste?

By David Brooks

“Radioactive waste found in a Falls Park” was the headline and when I read some cavalier quotes from local officials in the article, I remembered a visit to my office by two gentlemen from the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. I was environmental services director for Niagara Falls. They were researching radioactive contamination in the Niagara Falls area that resulted from the Manhattan Project, and they were looking for information about independent trucking companies that operated during World War II.

Private truckers then carried radioactive materials without any of the safeguards required today. The fellows from Oak Ridge had a good idea of the routes that the truckers followed since they went to Model City. They followed up their visit by flying along those routes, and found a significant hot spot along Buffalo Avenue that was remediated immediately.

Their concern was that independent truckers often parked their vehicles in vacant lots beside their businesses or homes. At the time, I had two Canadian students from Brock University sifting through old city directories in order to create a list of businesses that might be of environmental concern. The city was creating a geographic information systems database for multiple uses, and environmental concerns were high on Niagara Falls agenda.

The students and myself had not been thinking of truckers. I don’t recall if our inventory included them. City directories alone would not have provided a definitive list for a number of reasons. The Polk directories themselves were incomplete, and occupations were not always detailed. Furthermore, not all truckers parked within the city. A more thorough inquiry would have required newspaper research and, perhaps, motor vehicle records. Such a study would also have required a more regional approach and specific funding.

We were not able to help the Oak Ridge guys, but they did not seem to be bothered much. A more sensitive and intensive review over a larger area were the requirements for a comprehensive search. They had no warrant to conduct it nor were there any monies appropriated. They had done their due diligence. They did their search along a few major historic routes.

As the population of Niagara Falls and the surrounding area grew dramatically from 1940 to 1960, most empty lots within the city were built up, and suburban subdivisions appeared in Lewiston, Town of Niagara and Wheatfield. The scarcity of land was one of the causes of the Love Canal disaster. For an entire generation, soil was removed and relocated for use as fill.

So the appearance of low-level radioactivity on New York State parks land was not a surprise. In addition to Manhattan Project wastes, a large amount or furnace slag was used as fill. And there was a nonchalance with which other radioactive materials were handled. In the 1950s, shoe stores casually X-rayed feet for the perfect fit.

Given this history, it is more than likely that within our region a few people are living with exposure to unacceptable amounts of radioactivity. Should you be worried?

David Brooks is a former environmental services director of the City of Niagara Falls and a retired educator from the Niagara Falls City School District.

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