Neighbors contest bid to expand Niagara landfill

A hazardous waste facility in the Town of Porter with a history of spills and regulatory violations is seeking state permission to construct a new landfill, which one nearby resident has decried as “insanity.”

CWM Chemical Services is one of only a handful of hazardous waste facilities in the Rust Belt. Before CWM ran out of space in 2015, it accepted toxic materials such as PCBs, lead and asbestos, from industrial plants, brownfields and Superfund sites across the United States and Canada.

The company has tried for over a decade to obtain a permit to construct another landfill on their property. The application is pending before the state Siting Board, despite a state study that concluded in 2010 that there was enough capacity elsewhere in the United States and no pressing need for another such landfill in New York.

If approved, up to 220 trucks per day could rumble down a two-lane country road. The new landfill would hold enough toxic material to fill 1,200 Olympic-sized pools.

“It’s insanity what they propose to do,” said Tim Henderson, whose adult son was killed in a head-on collision with a hazardous waste truck leaving CWM in January 2011.

The application process is moving forward despite public opposition and CWM’s history of spills and environmental violations, an Investigative Post analysis of state and federal records found.

CWM has been cited for Clean Water Act violations in six of the past 12 quarters for discharging chemicals into a tributary of the Niagara River above the limits set in its permit. The company has also paid at least $876,900 in state fines since 1995 for more than 100 violations, most related to the transporting, handling and disposing of hazardous waste.

As the application process progressed CWM and its parent company, Waste Management Inc., have increased lobbying efforts and political donations to local and state campaigns.

The proposed expansion is opposed by four local governing bodies and the Lewiston-Porter Central School District, which stands to lose nearly $1 million a year in projected tax revenue that CWM would pay over the lifetime of the new landfill.

The Town of Porter, however, is staying out of the conflict. Officials there signed a deal with CWM that prohibits the town from opposing any application filed by the company in exchange for at least $3 million and other concessions.

Some nearby residents are sick with an array of illnesses. Two state studies found greater than expected rates of some cancers in the surrounding neighborhoods, but established no connection to CWM or any other nearby facility.

Nonetheless, the residents believe that living near CWM and a separate radioactive landfill managed by the federal government a mile south has been a detriment to their health.

“You wonder, you have kids, now are my kids going to go through it? My grandkids going to go through it?” said Peggy Leone, who has dealt with a host of health problems.

CWM said concerns raised during the application process are not substantive or significant enough to derail their expansion. Lori Caso, a company spokeswoman, said the facility is the safest, most-regulated landfill in the state.

“We’re on the inside of the fence, and I understand the people on the outside of the fence might be nervous, but I’m telling you for those of us who come here every day, there’s nothing to be afraid of here,” she said.

Peace and quiet now

There are 17 commercial hazardous waste facilities in the nation. The next-closest facilities to Niagara County are near Detroit, Toledo and Pittsburgh.

CWM’s facility in Porter is one of eight in the country permitted to dispose of PCBs, a banned carcinogen that was used in the manufacturing of plastics, as well as lubricants and transformer fluids. The company has treated, stored and buried hazardous waste on 700 acres for more than three decades. The landfill stopped accepting waste in 2015 when it reached capacity.

“We finally got some peace and quiet back on the roads, there’s very little trucks,” said Henderson, a member of Residents for Responsible Government, an advocacy group that has battled CWM for years.

CWM has accepted everything from a few hundred pounds of lead paint chips to thousands of tons of toxic industrial sludge and contaminated soil. By taking this hazardous material, CWM has helped other places prosper, while communities in Niagara County are stuck with the consequences.

For example, in 2008, Admiral’s Wharf in Stamford, Connecticut, got a posh waterfront development with homes, stores, offices and a marina. CWM took in 218 tons of toxic soils dredged from the wharf.

The Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, New York, had to clean out its Rifle and Pistol Club range that it closed in 2004. The 370 tons of shotgun range pellets contaminated with lead are buried at CWM.

Residents in Fords, New Jersey, benefited from getting their properties in their community remediated and sections of the Raritan River restored from decades of contamination from a former manufacturer of lubricants and other chemicals. The 4,484 tons of soil contaminated with PCBs is now at CWM.

Radiological concerns

The land that CWM occupies has a long history of being used as a dumping ground by the federal government.

Before CWM came to town, the land was part of 7,500 acres the federal government called Lake Ontario Ordnance Works or LOOW. After World War II, the federal government used the land for storing and dumping radioactive waste leftover from the Manhattan Project and the development of the atomic bomb.

Today, just a mile south of CWM, an underground containment area holds some 20,000 tons of radioactive waste, including half the world’s known radium, which decays into potentially cancer-causing radon gas. This landfill is managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

In 1980, CWM purchased an existing hazardous waste facility on a portion of the former LOOW property. But the historic use of CWM’s property is another source of concern for opponents, who fear a new landfill would require digging up land that might be contaminated with radioactivity that could disperse into the air.

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“Our position is that radiological contaminants are diffusely spread across the site, as evidenced by the consistent discovery of elevated radiation on nearly every occasion CWM has had to put a shovel in the ground,” said Gary Abraham, the attorney representing the Town of Lewiston, Niagara County Legislature and the villages of Lewiston and Youngstown against CWM.

Caso, CWM’s spokeswoman, said the radiological concerns are a non-issue.

“You could look at it that the land is already historically contaminated, you don’t ever want to use this for anything else,” she said.

Fines and spills

An Investigative Post review of state and federal spill and enforcement data shows CWM has a spotty track record.

The pace of the violations and penalties slowed as the landfill took in less waste as it approached capacity. But problems have persisted.

CWM has had Clean Water Act violations in six of the past 12 quarters for discharges of phenols, zinc and dirty wastewater into Twelve Mile creek, a tributary to the Niagara River.

In 2016, CWM was fined $54,900 for a series of violations that included a 1,000 gallon spill of leachate, a toxic soup of chemicals that percolates from landfills. An employee error caused almost 200,000 gallons of additional leachate to spill over into a second containment tank, according to enforcement records. The company also failed to perform annual testing of the leachate tanks.

Between 2006 and 2008, CWM was fined $175,000 for violations that involved storing hazardous waste in leaking or bulging drums, leaving a valve open that leaked leachate onto the floor of a building, and discharging “a substantial volume” of foam through a vent line near one of its stormwater drainage systems.

CWM was fined when “a substantial volume” of foam discharged through a vent line near one of its stormwater drains.

Other violations include allowing a truck to track mud contaminated with PCBs off site, failing to inspect tanks for leaks, burying soil contaminated with chemicals at concentrations above what was permitted, and accepting and burying prohibited radioactive waste.

In addition, there are hundreds of other spills at the facility for which CWM was not fined because they were the fault of trucks delivering waste to the facility.

An Investigative Post analysis found at least 389 reports of spills at or near CWM over the past two decades. Spills included chemicals such as petroleum, PCBs, lead and arsenic. More than one-quarter of the incidents involved spills of hazardous waste from trucks in transit to the facility since 2005, according to an analysis of U.S. Department of Transportation data.

For example, in 2009, 240 pounds of material contaminated with PCBs leaked at the facility. Less than two months later, it happened again, this time 16 pounds of material contaminated with PCBs. Almost all of the spills were attributed to leaking gaskets on containers.

“From time to time there might be a spill from a vacuum truck and there’s a little bit on the road, and we clean it up immediately. The spill is controlled. It is not being dispersed into the environment,” said Jill Banaszak, CWM’s technical manager.

Health concerns

Grace Austin, a former bus driver for Lewiston-Porter schools, said she has seen enough friends and acquaintances suffer and die.

Austin has a hand-drawn map of the area marked with pink X’s for each of the 127 residents she says have died of cancer since the 1980s. Austin, a breast cancer survivor, made the list by going through obituaries, confirming deaths with family members and jotting down the names of her own deceased friends and acquaintances.

“This is a toxic area,” Austin said.

Leone, who lives about a mile from the landfills, has had a hysterectomy, throat cancer and deformities in her kidneys.

She said most hunters avoid the area.

“Most don’t hunt around here, only for the very reason that there are a lot of deer that are contaminated,” Leone said. “I’ve seen deer that when you field dress it, the deer is green.”

Elaine Martin had a tumorous gland removed in 1998 and has endured a lifetime of sorrow, watching as other relatives fell sick.

“My brother had breast cancer when he was in his 30s and then my other sister, she had colon cancer and my other sister has melanoma. My father had prostate cancer,” she said.

“My one son only has one kidney and he was born like that.”

The state Department of Health found in studies released in 2003 and 2008 that a five-mile area around the Town of Porter had statistically significant rates of some cancers.

The more comprehensive study in 2008 found more statistically significant rates of cancer, including rare childhood cancers, over a 10-year period for the towns of Lewiston and Porter, the Village of Youngstown and the hamlet of Ransomville. The study concluded that most of the cancers are common and that “much more research is necessary before the causes of cancer are well understood.” As for the rare childhood cancers, the health department suspected some of the children could have been exposed to pesticides from nearby farms.

Neither study made any link to CWM, the radioactive landfill or any other nearby facility. Nor did they consider other illnesses, such as the autoimmune problems and neurological disorders that residents say seem prevalent in the area.

Clyde Burmaster, a Niagara County legislator, is a five-time prostate and bladder cancer survivor. He lives three miles from the CWM facility. His mother and sister-in-law who lived nearby both died of cancer.

“How is this allowed to exist? It is so idyllic here,” he said.

Government opposition

The Town of Lewiston, Niagara County Legislature and the villages of Lewiston and Youngstown, as well as the Lewiston-Porter school district, have voiced their dissent despite the risk of losing out on the millions of dollars in revenue from taxes and fees that CWM would pay over the lifetime of the new landfill.

The Town of Lewiston and Lewiston-Porter schools would take in an estimated $13.2 million that CWM would pay in gross receipts taxes over three decades, according to an economic report prepared by the company. CWM also would pay $29.3 million to the Lewiston-Porter schools in school taxes over the same time period.

The Town of Porter has remained silent. In 2001, it signed a host agreement with CWM that prohibits the town government from opposing the landfill expansion. The agreement earned the town at least $3 million in fees and payments. As part of the deal, CWM agreed to not build incinerators to burn waste.

In total, CWM says its new landfill will bring Niagara County $581 million in economic benefit through 2045.

None of that sways Alfonso Bax, a Lewiston Town Board member.

“This deal is equivalent to selling your soul to the devil,” he said.

“I think the loss of these fees and other revenues is certainly not worth the loss in property values and quality of life in our community, including the safety and health concerns our residents have raised.”

The decision whether to approve the application is left to the state Department of Environmental Conservation commissioner and the Siting Board, an administrative law panel comprised mostly of representatives from state agencies.

Donations, lobbying

CWM stepped up its donations over the past decade, when the DEC was studying the need for hazardous waste facilities, and when the Siting Board subsequently took up the application.

Since 2009, CWM has contributed $99,900 to political committees. That includes $84,900 to the Niagara County Republican Committee, $10,000 of which was donated in the past three years.

At the same time, its parent company, Waste Management, which does business across the state, also made more campaign donations than before. Since 2009, Waste Management and three of its subsidiaries have donated $525,070, including $77,500 to Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who in 2014 appointed three ad-hoc members to the eight-member Siting Board.

In addition, both CWM and other affiliates of Waste Management have spent at least $1.8 million since 2007 to lobby local and state lawmakers and the DEC on its expansion permit and other environmental issues. Of that, $309,000 was spent in the past three years.

CWM’s application will be the subject of a July 10 regulatory hearing. An administrative judge will determine the issues that will be litigated before the Siting Board.

Caso said customers have maintained that additional landfill space is needed. She pointed to letters of support sent to the administrative judge by trucking companies and waste handlers that use CWM’s landfill. Most of the letters are identical, however.

One of those supporters is Bart Klettke, a civil engineer who has designed landfills. He said the radioactive contamination “would preclude the property from being used for a shopping mall, a vineyard, farmers wouldn’t want to use the land.”

“So why not use that real estate for landfill development? You’ll never use it for anything else,” he said.

The DEC’s 2010 Siting Plan study concluded there is no need to expand the landfill: “There is no current or near term need for increased capacity for hazardous waste management in New York State.”

This conclusion has emboldened residents.

“I don’t think CWM should expand,” said Austin, who lives in Youngstown. “I think they should just close up and go someplace else.”