State to test for contamination at Gallagher Beach

After barrage of bad press, Cuomo administration commits to conducting tests to determine beach's fitness for swimming

The Cuomo administration has relented and agreed to test Gallagher Beach in South Buffalo for possible contamination before deciding whether to open it for swimming.

In fact, crews began work this week to collect water, soil and sediment samples. An employee on the job for Ecology and Environment Inc., the contractor hired to collect and analyze samples, said the testing is the most comprehensive the firm has conducted for a beach.

The decision to conduct comprehensive tests follows two Investigative Post stories earlier this month (found here and here) that reported the beach rests in a harbor basin contaminated with PCBs and is close to two Superfund sites that have leached toxins into Lake Erie and the Outer Harbor.

As a result, opening the beach for swimming is  “probably impractical from a public health standpoint,” according to a report prepared for the Erie County Health Department.

State officials responded by refusing to comment or release documents, while maintaining Gallagher Beach was exempt from beach testing requirements prescribed in New York’s bathing beach code.

Officials broke their silence Wednesday in an interview with Investigative Post and WGRZ.

“This is new ground …  that’s why we need to cover all our bases and we’re going through the process step by step to make sure that the testing is complete so that we know what we’re dealing with,” said Pamm Lent, the governor’s director of communications for Western New York.

Ecology and Environment will test soils and beach floor sediment at least 10-feet deep and determine if any dangerous substances are entering the water from a nearby stormwater drain south of the beach. They will also test the water for pesticides, bacteria and a “laundry list” of other contaminants.

“It’s going to be extensive testing,” Lent said.

Results of the testing and analysis should be finished early next year, according to Ecology and Environment. As a result, opening Gallagher Beach by next summer is “unlikely,” Lent said.

The office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation is the lead agency on this project and would manage the beach. Spokesman Randy Simon told Investigative Post in an emailed statement:

“The community should be well aware that New York state will not open a swimming beach unless it is safe to do so.”

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announced plans in early September to open Gallagher Beach for swimming as part of a state park at the Outer Harbor. Congressman Brian Higgins, whose district includes the beach, has said he’d like the beach to open next summer, if practical.

Pollution concerns were not an issue at the time of the announcement, but a report produced shortly thereafter for the county Health Department identified potentially serious issues at Gallagher Beach. The report prompted Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz to say, “Until we do more testing … I myself wouldn’t swim” at the beach.

What are the concerns?

  • Sediment lining the basin of the Outer Harbor is contaminated with PCBs, a toxic residue of the region’s industrial past that has prompted authorities to caution residents to limit the consumption of fish they catch there.
  • A 36-inch stormwater discharge drain about 600 feet south of the beach – closer than permitted under the state beach code – dumps potentially hazardous chemicals and bacteria into the water during heavy rains.
  • The beach is less than a half mile from two Superfund sites where Bethlehem Steel and Hanna Furnace used to operate plants. Ground contaminants include benzene, arsenic and lead. Groundwater that potentially carries some or all of these toxins has leached into waterways located upstream from Gallagher Beach. The Bethlehem Steel site is a particular concern.

“The site presents a significant environmental threat due to the ongoing releases of contaminants from source areas into groundwater,” according to a DEC document. “There is also the potential that contaminated groundwater is impacting Lake Erie.”

The author of the county report and several other experts said the beach area should be tested for contamination and the state has a bathing beach code that requires vigorous water testing before a beach can be opened for public swimming.

But the state initially balked at testing. Two weeks ago a spokesman for the state Health Department told Investigative Post in an email that the state beach code “does not apply” to beaches operated by the state Office of Parks. State officials steadfastly refused to answer questions as to what, if any tests, they were prepared to conduct.

On Wednesday, Lent reiterated that the Office of Parks is not required to follow the state beach bathing code, but quickly added that it will do so at Gallagher Beach.

“They follow the same code as the Department of Health and there are federal standards for swimming beaches – they follow all of those,” she said.