U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer on Wednesday called on the federal Environmental Protection Agency to “move into a higher gear” and conduct a comprehensive assessment of radioactive hotspots in Niagara County and Grand Island.
Schumer was responding to an Investigative Post story last week that reported the government has failed to address some 60 properties previously determined to contain elevated levels of radiation.
“What I hope will happen next is the EPA will investigate, they’ll find out how many hotspots there are, what their level of radioactivity is, if they present a danger and then we’ll ask them if they do to present a plan to remediate,” Schumer told Investigative Post.
“The sooner the better. Let’s hope, praise God, that there is no danger here. But right now it is hanging over people’s heads in terms of property values, in terms of health and in terms of safety, so let’s get an investigation done and clear this up once and for all.”
State and federal government agencies identified almost four decades ago at least 100 properties in Niagara County and Grand Island contaminated with radioactive material. The federal government cleaned about a third of the properties after linking the radioactive waste to nuclear weapons development through the Manhattan Project.
But state and federal officials continue to refuse to discuss what, if anything, will be done with the balance of the 60 properties with radioactivity that ranges from three to more than 70 times what people are naturally exposed to in the local environment, according to state and federal documents.
Schumer said the lack of clear information about these contaminated residential and commercial properties “means that the EPA needs to step up its game to address this problem.”
On Wednesday, Schumer sent a letter to EPA Administration Gina McCarthy urging the agency to “conduct an updated and comprehensive assessment-and-remediation plan of identified radioactive hotspots.”
“New Yorkers in the affected communities have been waiting too long for information about next steps,” Schumer wrote McCarthy.
EPA officials declined interview requests on Wednesday, but wrote in an emailed statement that the agency in 2013 launched investigations for potential contamination at three sites: a residential driveway at 738 Upper Mountain Road in Lewiston, an access road and undeveloped property associated with the Holy Trinity Cemetery off Roberts Avenue in Lewiston, and the Rapids Bowling/Greater Niagara Building Center property on Niagara Falls Boulevard. None of these sites qualified for federal Superfund remediations.
Nonetheless, the EPA is moving forward with cleanup at the bowling alley and building supply center property and will continue to assess contamination at the cemetery. In the meantime, the EPA fenced off the contaminated 3 acres at the cemetery.
State and federal officials believe the radioactive material discovered at the balance of properties is a byproduct of commercial metallurgical companies, which have since closed. The material, which resembles gravel, was used for roads driveways and parking lots throughout the area until it was licensed as radioactive material in the late 1950s.
“New York State refers radioactive sites to EPA for review,” the EPA said Wednesday in the prepared statement. “EPA remains committed to working with the State of New York on additional sites that warrant attention.”
The state Department of Health said in a statement for Investigative Post’s initial story that a panel of experts concluded in 1980 that the radioactive material did not pose a significant enough risk to warrant immediate removal. Neither the state Department of Environmental Conservation nor the Department of Health referred any sites to the EPA for potential clean ups until 2013, the EPA statement said.
In addition to Schumer’s call for action, the Town of Lewiston Board and Assemblyman John Cerreto have requested action from environmental regulators.
The Niagara Gazette reported Tuesday that Town Supervisor Steve Broderick has asked the county and state health departments to investigate potential contamination of properties along Roberts Avenue adjacent to the cemetery. The Gazette reported that the EPA agreed to perform additional testing in the Roberts Avenue area.
Cerreto, whose district covers all of the known properties potentially impacted, said in a prepared statement that he was “outraged” by what he read in the Investigative Post report.
“I’m appalled that state and federal officials have let our community go on living and working at properties with up to 70 times the normal level of radiation,” he said.
“This is not something that can be ignored. Radioactive material like this should never be within reach of our children or anywhere near our homes. Our families deserve answers and all parties responsible for letting this happen deserve to be held accountable.”