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Investigative Post: Radioactive hotspots dot Niagara County

Dan Telvock

The state has known for almost four decades that more than 60 properties are contaminated with radioactive waste in Niagara County and Grand Island.

The driveway that John Grace uses for his home on Upper Mountain Road in Lewiston is hot, but not in a way that he can use as a marketing pitch to sell his home.

Government surveys almost four decades ago found sections of the driveway contaminated with radioactive waste in excess of 70 times what people are naturally exposed to in the area. He watched as a radiation detector located the hotspots that triggers the device.

Grace first found out three years ago that the driveway, which he does not actually own, was contaminated. That’s when Environmental Protection Agency officials dug holes into the driveway and a vacant lot next door to pinpoint the hotspots.

“I just said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me.’ This is Lewiston, where'd that come from? But they said it was all around,” said Grace. “They said it was all around Niagara County.”

Indeed, the radioactive waste is all around. The federal Department of Energy identified 100 hotspots in Niagara County and some in Grand Island almost four decades ago. They cleaned up about one-third of the properties.

Credit Dan Telvock
John Grace owns a home on Upper Mountain Road that is adjacent to a gravel driveway that contains radioactive waste.

It’s unclear what, if anything, has been done to remediate the balance. That leaves about 60 residential and commercial properties with potential radiation anywhere from three to more than 70 times what is in the county’s natural environment. The radioactive material looks like gravel and was used throughout the region for roads, driveways and parking lots.

Authorities believe the material is commercial waste from companies in Niagara Falls that process metal ores. State health officials refused to discuss the situation with Investigative Post. Instead, in emailed statements, officials said the material does not pose a significant risk and that they’ve notified some property owners about the contamination.

But a group of attorneys and environmental engineers said most of the property owners they have approached told them they were unaware of the contamination.

“For a good number of the folks that we’ve talked to, it is a surprise,” said environmental attorney John Horn, who also disagreed with the state’s take on the risk the waste poses. He says the waste is absolutely harmful.

Credit Dan Telvock
In the parking lot off Niagara Falls Boulevard, a drilling into the floor of the building supply store to show a cross-section of the radioactive gravel beneath the pavement. The material beneath the pavement (enclosed in a red square) is the radioactive material found beneath the store and throughout the driveway at Rapids Bowling and Greater Niagara Building Center.

The EPA is assessing two properties for cleanup. One of the hottest spots is a parking lot shared by Rapids Bowling and Greater Niagara Building Center off Niagara Falls Boulevard in Niagara Falls. In 2007 the state Department of Environmental Conservation found radiation near a marshy area by the parking lot up to 80 times background levels.

The parking lot has long been in disrepair with contaminated rock exposed at the surface in some spots. Despite the warnings, a former property owner dug into the contaminated parking lot without penalty from the state in 2001 and again in 2006.

Another hot spot is three acres adjacent to Holy Trinity Cemetery off Roberts Avenue in Lewiston, where state and federal officials measured radiation in excess of 75 times background. The state health department said this waste did not pose a significant threat, but the EPA fenced the contaminated property in April. The agency said it needs to further assess the site to determine if the material should be removed.

Brian Stamm is an attorney working with Horn to investigate these contaminated properties and find who is responsible for the material.

“Even though it may not be at a Superfund level, these levels we’re finding on these property owners’ homes is at such a significant level that it absolutely has to be cleaned up and removed,” said Grace.

Grace said he would have never bought his home had he known fifteen years that the driveway was contaminated.

“No one would’ve bought it. I mean would you have? No, that’s radioactive material. That’s not nice stuff,” said Grace.

Will the driveway near Grace’s house and the other 60 properties get remediated? State and federal officials refused to answer that question. Grace isn’t confident.

“The media’s here. Something going to happen? We know the way the government moves: very slow,” said Grace. “They’ll outwait me.”

Dan Telvock covers the environment for Investigative Post.