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Corps of Engineers explains delay in Lewiston nuclear waste removal

In December 2015, the Army Corps of Engineers announced a $490 million plan to remove all of the nuclear waste from the Niagara Falls Storage Site in Lewiston.

More than three years later, all of that waste remains buried under 20 feet of clay.

The Corps has not followed through with the removal work, or even issued a "record of decision" authorizing the work. Community leaders worry the delay and a budgetary revision sought by the Trump administration foreshadow a change in plans.

"We thought our primary objective was virtually complete," said William A. Choboy of Lewiston, chairman of the Lake Ontario Ordnance Works Restoration Advisory Board, a citizen group.

The waste, from the World War II atomic bomb project and postwar industrial projects, lies buried under the north side of Pletcher Road, about a mile east of Lewiston-Porter Central School.

There has been no change in the removal plan, said Bill Kowalewski, the special projects branch chief at the Corps' Buffalo office.

The project manager in 2015, John Busse, told The Buffalo News at the time that the removal plan would go through a 12- to-18-month review process before the assistant secretary of the Army for civil works would sign the record of decision.

The record was submitted to the assistant secretary's office in July 2017, Kowalewski said. But there was no assistant secretary then. The post wasn't filled until early 2018.

Last October, the Army General Counsel's Office reviewed the document. Kowalewski said some changes were suggested in wording, not policy. But there has been no further action.

Two weeks ago, President Trump's budget proposed moving the cleanup program for federally owned nuclear sites from the Army Corps to the Energy Department.

"The intent of the proposal is to stabilize the funding streams and contribute some efficiencies," Kowalewski said. "I don't think that would have any impact on the Niagara Falls Storage Site."

But he said there has no planning for what happens if the Energy Department inherits decision-making authority for the Lewiston project.

Kowalewski will publicly discuss the project before the Lake Ontario Ordnance Works Restoration Advisory Board at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Lew-Port Community Resource Center, 4061 Creek Road.

The government has a history of not following through on promises to clean up the site, said Niagara County Legislature Vice Chairman Clyde L. Burmaster, R-Ransomville.

He sponsored a resolution the Legislature passed last week demanding the record of decision be signed "immediately."

Radioactive waste was consolidated between 1982 and 1986 at the site, the long-demolished Ordnance Works water treatment plant.

"Within 10 years of that, they were going to have a decision on when and where they were going to move it," Burmaster said. "It never happened."

In 2015, Busse, who has since been succeeded by Jeff Rowley, said he didn't expect a funding request until 2022. Kowalewski said that 2025 is now a more accurate target date.

Andrew Kornacki, a spokesman in the Corps' Buffalo office, said Monday that signing the decision wouldn't guarantee funding.

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