So, just how contaminated is Western New York? Do we have more than our fair share of historic contamination? Are we still bringing waste here? How much? How do we compare with the rest of New York State?
These were the questions that the Waste and Pollution Working Group of the WNY Environmental Alliance asked themselves as we were getting organized in early 2010. Although the members who joined this group were very knowledgeable about some aspect or waste site, we realized that we didn’t have a complete picture of the conditions of our Niagara Region. And so Mapping Waste: Setting the Stage to Clean Up Niagara was born. With support from the Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo and an agreement with the Urban Design Project, School of Architecture and Planning at UB, Professors Lynda Schneekloth and Joe Gardella agreed to ‘map the waste.’
The intent of Mapping Waste is to make information about hazardous waste publicly accessible to the groups working in the waste area and to the public-at-large through the GrowWNY website. The longer term goal is to develop a broadly based comprehensive strategy and campaign to clean-up and restore the Niagara region in Western New York.
The project turned out to be more complex than anticipated but now, in May 2012, we have achieved the goal of producing a snapshot of the hazardous waste profile of three counties of WNY: Erie, Niagara and Cattaraugus. We used existing data sources to generate maps that identify the legacy waste issues and on-going waste disposal and processes in the Niagara Region.
CLICK HERE to read the entire report online.
Structure of the Report: There are three main parts of the report. First, there is an Atlas that is divided into three parts: The regulatory framework; the maps and charts; and the analysis. Second, there is a preliminary analysis of some important issues such hazardous material and environmental justice, proximity to schools, population density, comparison with other counties in New York State, and also the location of contamination by elected official district. Each of these could become platforms for urging better oversight and clean-up.The third section is a series of case studies, many of them well known in the Niagara Region:
- Hickory Woods: Residential construction on contaminated land adjacent to a Superfund site;
- Sycamore Village: Residential construction on contaminated land, incorporating lessons from Hickory Woods;
- 858 East Ferry: Successful community involvement in a Superfund cleanup;
- Clean Air Coalition in Tonawanda: Successful community involvement in air pollution;
- The former Lake Ontario Ordnance Works (LOOW) in Lewiston and Porter: A complex site with radiological and chemical waste storage and contamination and overlapping federal and state regulation; and
- West Valley Nuclear Facility, storage of high level nuclear waste in Cattaraugus County.
What We Learned About WNY: It will come as no surprise that much of WNY’s contamination is concentrated in our population centers first, because that was the location of early industry and hence, the legacy waste, and second, these areas continue as the center of ‘active’ waste. This pattern increases the threats to the health of more people, especially our children. Further, many of these sites are located in low income areas, raising questions of environmental justice. For example, 38 superfund sites (combined Superfund programs of the US Environmental Protection Agency and NYS Department of Environmental Conservation) within a half mile of a public school and 36 superfund sites (combined Superfund programs of the US EPA and NYS DEC) within Potential Environmental Justice Areas as defined by the NYS DEC for having high proportions of low-income and minority residents.
Western New York and its residents are unfairly burdened with legacy and ongoing contamination in comparison to the rest of New York State when reviewed county by county. With a small number of exceptions, each county in the WNY study area had more than 1.6% (the fair share if distributed equally across New York State’s 62 counties) of almost every issue studied (legacy and active hazardous waste, legacy and active solid waste, and radioactive waste). At least one of the three study area counties was near the top of the list in total number of sites with each contamination issue studied.
Strong Community Action: Although burdened unfairly by contamination, Western New York residents have proven that community action can make a difference. The Love Canal tragedy catalyzed an environmental justice movement, championed by Lois Gibbs and other community members that saw the creation of the federal and state Superfund programs for remediating similar sites. More recently, community action led to the remediation of the 858 East Ferry site in Buffalo and successful legal action against Tonawanda Coke for polluting the air.
What we Learned about Hazardous Waste Regulation and Remediation: Beyond the lessons about WNY, there are a number of important issues that a community needs to understand as it seeks to clean up the contamination in its environment. These may appear academic but they are the environment in which neighborhoods, community groups and non-profits have to negotiate to address pollution.
1. Information is available but hard to access because most is housed in a GIS system that most people don’t know, the data are structure in a way that is difficult for the public to use and interpret, and EPA and DEC update their websites at different times so that sometimes the data don’t agree.
2. Hazardous waste regulation is an evolving system which means that the categories shift over time, ideas about what clean-up has changes, and there are many agencies involved in regulating different kinds of waste. This system, which emerged in the 1970s, has grown, changed and been modified to accommodate new information and insights, resulting in greater capacity on the one hand, but more complexity and less transparency on the other.
In addition, there are differences in legacy waste and active waste in terms of their dynamics. The legacy waste is fairly consistent even while new sites may be added over time as they are uncovered. Active waste, on the other hand, changes frequently as new sites are opened, others closed, facilities report the storage and production and then cease using hazardous waste. This type of waste must be reviewed frequently.
3. There is a significant structural tension within the enabling legislation and establishment of both the federal and state agencies responsible for the health of citizens and environment. EPA and DEC are charged with preserving the quality of environment and controlling pollution AND giving permits to pollute for a fee, which in most cases, is used to pay staff in the agency.
4. The regulation of hazardous waste is managed according to categories of waste as evident by the structure of this report; it does not address cumulative impacts. Cumulative impacts are particularly problematic in the permitting process where the requirements for receiving a permit are outlined on an individual basis and not on a geographic area basis.
5. And remember, remediation and clean-up does not mean “clean”. Sites are rarely treated exactly the same, and the ‘end state’ of the remedial process is usually different for each site. The response to a site remediation depends on many things such as the nature of the contamination, the proposed use of the site, the proximity to populations and so on. A site that has been ‘remediated’ is deemed no longer ‘dangerous’ and a threat to human health, but it is not necessarily restored.
6. There may be other unidentified contaminated sites. A final reminder about the constraints of fully comprehending an assessment of waste is that those areas identified, remediated and monitored do not include all of the hazardous wastes sites in the three counties. The sites identified in this report are a summary of known hazardous waste sites.The public demand for knowledge and information regarding the health of the environment continues to grow and governmental responses try to accommodate them. However, as can be seen from the list above, the process of preserving, and restoring the common environment – the air, water and land, is hampered by the processes we have put in place in addition to insufficient science or, the unmentioned aspect in this report, political will.
Next Steps: The Waste and Pollution Working Group will be making visits to our regional elected officials to discuss this report and to give them a summary of the hazardous waste in their own district. You too can find out what is in your district by looking at the on-line reports of your elected official. This is a beginning only, a ‘snapshot’ as we said. But hopefully it will raise the right questions that can be used by community and environmental groups who want to take action in their communities.
A sincere thank you to the Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Environmental Conservation for their willingness to work with us, interpret data, and clarify information in the production this report.