BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) — Thirty-five years after underground toxics turned the Niagara Falls neighborhood of Love Canal into a ghost town, researchers are warning that Western New York is still home to nearly 800 hazardous waste sites that could someday lead to big trouble, not only for local residents, but for the entire Great Lakes region.
A recently completed study, believed to be the most comprehensive look ever at hazardous waste sites in Western New York, finds potential chemical hazards lurking across Erie, Niagara and Cattaraugus counties:
—Half of the world's known radium is stored about a mile from the Lewiston-Porter schools.
—The most deadly wastes from all over the Northeast are hauled along local roads to a dump site in Niagara County.
—Lead from a former smelting plant is believed to be linked to a deadly outbreak of lupus on Buffalo's East Side.
—Radioactive waste from the West Valley nuclear storage facility in Cattaraugus County could someday endanger the Great Lakes.
The vast majority of these waste sites are located in the Great Lakes watershed, the largest source of fresh water in the world.
Many of the sites are either directly adjacent or close to Lake Erie, Lake Ontario, the Niagara and Buffalo rivers, or other waterways that feed the Great Lakes.
An estimated 26 million to 40 million people drink the water from the Great Lakes, which contain more than one-fifth of the world's fresh surface water.
"It's important . It's overwhelming," said Joseph A. Gardella Jr., an environmentalist and University at Buffalo chemistry professor who co-authored the study that was completed by the Western New York Environmental Alliance, the Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo and the University at Buffalo's Urban Design Project.
"This information is a wake-up call," said Brian P. Smith, program director for the Western New York Citizens Campaign for the Environment. "Policymakers need to look at it, digest it and find out what wastes are in their districts. We need to work to comprehensively clean up the waste in a way that is protective of public health. Protecting the Great Lakes has to be one of our top priorities."
Some of the material is leftover from industry or war projects. And more dangerous material continues to be hauled here from elsewhere because this region has become a dumping ground for other communities' poisons and wastes.
Among the most significant findings:
—Niagara County has more than twice as many federal- and state-designated hazardous waste sites as comparably sized counties throughout the state.
—The three counties contain 174 federal or state "Superfund" hazardous waste sites, 43 designated as "significant threats" to public health.
—Erie County has almost eight times as many brownfield cleanup sites as the average county in the state, and Niagara County has more than twice as many as the average county.
"Are we overburdened with waste? Yes, with all kinds of waste," said Lynda H. Schneekloth, a professor at UB's Urban Design Project. "We never knew how much of it was out there until we conducted this study."
The job of protecting people in Western New York from hazardous waste mainly falls on two watchdog agencies - the state Department of Environmental Conservation and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The DEC has a much bigger presence than the EPA in Western New York and is more actively involved on a day-to-day basis.
Despite the presence of these hundreds of waste sites, the public safety situation is "light-years better" than it was in the late 1970s, said EPA spokesman Michael J. Basile. That's because the two agencies constantly monitor the sites, he said.
"We have better regulation of these sites, much more attention is paid to environmental issues, and we have a much better-educated public than we did in the '70s," Basile said. "Whether you live around the corner from a dry cleaners or an industrial waste landfill, there are environmental regulations. We work hard to enforce them. So does the state."
Reacting to the claim that Western New York is overburdened with hazardous waste sites, Basile said he does not believe so. He added that the DEC would be better equipped to answer that question.
"I will say that, in the Northeast, there is a historical preponderance of industrial activity, whether you are talking about Buffalo, Pittsburgh or Niagara Falls," Basile said. "(Western New York) is not the toxic capital of the world. It's easy for someone to make that claim, but it's not the case."
A DEC spokeswoman declined to comment for this story, but according to Gardella, much of the data in the "Mapping Waste" study came directly from DEC records.
So how did all this waste get here in the first place? Much of it was produced here. Decades ago, during the 1900s, chemical companies were attracted to Niagara County because of the proximity to the cheap and plentiful electrical power generated by Niagara Falls. Easy access to fresh water, another key component in the chemical industry, also was important.
Another reason why Niagara County has such a big share of radioactive waste is that much of the work on the Manhattan Project, which led to the development of the atomic bomb during World War II, was done here.
And then there is all the waste that is still being hauled here - to the Chemical Waste Management landfill in the Town of Porter - from other areas of New York State and the Northeast.
About 100 local environmental groups worked on the 223-page study. The information they examined has been available in complicated reports from a variety of government agencies for years, but never before assembled into one comprehensive report.