No swimming at Gallagher Beach

News and analysis by Dan Telvock, Investigative Post's environmental reporter

The bottom line is there won’t be any swimming this summer at Gallagher Beach off Route 5 in South Buffalo.

Instead, state officials announced Monday that testing will continue through the spring and summer.

Last fall, Investigative Post reported about potential water contamination at Gallagher Beach, where U.S. Rep. Brian Higgins, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Byron Brown had hoped to open for swimming this summer.

Three weeks after the story aired, the state agreed to test the water, soil and harbor floor.

The testing, which was conducted over just a few days in late October, found a couple of potential concerns.

First, the beach water was dirty.

Testing identified high levels of fecal bacteria in the water and elevated concentrations of other bacteria such as E. coli that flows out of a stormwater drain just south of the beach. All the bacteria is associated with sewage overflows, wildlife feces or agricultural runoff. Such pollution can make swimmers sick and usually results in beach advisories or closings.

Stormwater drain south of Gallagher Beach

Stormwater drain south of Gallagher Beach.

A second concern is contaminated fill below the sand. In some spots, you have to dig only six inches into the sand before striking the fill. The study recommended a barrier between the sand and fill to protect beachgoers from any potential exposure.

But the state analysis stopped short of explaining what chemicals contaminate the fill.

And neither the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, the lead agency in this effort, nor the state Department of Health, who analyzed the test results, would answer any questions about the reports. In fact, state officials have refused to discuss the beach testing since January. Investigative Post obtained the test results through a request filed under the state Freedom of Information Law.

The testing concluded the water otherwise poses no threat to swimmers, despite its proximity to two Superfund sites.

One of those toxic Superfund sites is the former Bethlehem Steel site a half mile upstream from Gallagher Beach. State environmental records show cancer-causing benzene has been found in groundwater at levels 100,000 times higher than permitted by federal drinking water standards. Those documents say there is the “potential that contaminated groundwater is impacting Lake Erie.”

Likewise, the testing found the sediment of the Outer Harbor floor—including Gallagher Beach—also poses no danger to swimmers.

However, the Environmental Protection Agency has designated the Outer Harbor as an impaired waterway. That designation is based on the presence of a banned cancer-causing chemical known as PCB in the sediment that lines the Outer Harbor’s floor. The state analysis makes no mention of the EPA designation or the two Superfund sites. Nor does the state analysis mention any potential threat to fishermen who eat the fish in the Outer Harbor.

EPA says Outer Harbor is an impaired waterway with PCBs

EPA says Outer Harbor is an impaired waterway with PCBs

The next step is the state will collect more beach water and stormwater drain samples to determine the source or sources of the bacterial pollution. More soil tests will be conducted, as well.

The study also recommended the development of a property management plan that ensures the park and beach will be safe and maintained.

In the meantime, state officials will incorporate Gallagher Beach into a state park that is planned for the Outer Harbor. Cuomo announced Monday that the state is earmarking $15 million out of the Buffalo Billion to develop the 190-acre park.