Eighteen Mile Creek in Niagara County is so polluted that the state Department of Health doesn’t want people to eat the fish caught there. It’s one of only six waterbodies in the state with such a warning.
This hasn’t stopped another arm of the state, the Department of Environmental Conservation, from stocking the contaminated creek each year with an average of 160,000 of what are considered among the most desirable of fish: salmon and trout.
As a result, a section along Eighteen Mile Creek in the Town of Newfane has become a fishing hotspot, part of the Lake Ontario watershed’s $113 million dollar recreational fishing industry.
“This fishing industry is a multi-million dollar industry and they don’t want to hurt it,” said Shirley Nicholas, a City of Lockport resident who lives by the creek.
Nicholas and her friend Jean Kiene were instrumental in getting the Environmental Protection Agency in 2012 to add Eighteen Mile Creek to its Superfund program. The banks and bottom of the creek are laced with a number of toxins, including PCBs, which can cause cancer. The contamination is so bad the agency evacuated five families along the creek in 2015.
DEC officials defended the stocking program, saying the fish spend most of their lives in nearby Lake Ontario. They return to the creek to spawn and die, and so there’s only a slim chance the fish can get contaminated.
“We are managing for recreational fisheries,” said Steve LaPan, who is in charge of the DEC’s Great Lakes fisheries section. “And the goal of the policy is to protect public health, but to also encourage the beneficial uses that we are providing by stocking.”
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But some believe stocking a toxic creek undermines the health warning.
“I’ve listened to their justification, it really doesn’t make any sense,” said Joe Gardella, chemistry professor at the University at Buffalo and a lifelong fisherman.
“It just seems counter to what the department of health is trying to do on that creek, which is stop people from seeing it as a source of food,” said Gardella, who is also chairman of the Buffalo Environmental Management Commission and serves on the EPA’s Science Advisory Board.
Eighteen Mile Creek begins north of the City of Lockport, meandering through the Town of Newfane before emptying into Lake Ontario at Olcott Harbor.
Michael J. Pillot, a lifelong Lockport resident, recalled at an August 2013 public hearing a “cloudy haze” from factories, dead fish, sick animals and chemical dumping in the creek.
“I thought that Eighteen Mile creek was worse than Love Canal, and I still believe that,” he told the EPA at the meeting. “This is not a new problem that just arose. It’s been ongoing for years.”
In 1987, the International Joint Commission, which manages shared waters along the U.S.-Canadian border, added Eighteen Mile Creek to a list of 43 badly polluted waterways that needed extra attention. The sources of the contamination are believed to come from sewer overflows and old industrial plants, most of which operated on the edge of the creek in Lockport.
In 2008, the DEC notified nearly 100 property owners by mail that they live near a state Superfund site that poses a significant risk to public health.
Nicholas got one of those letters: “And it says right here: A fish advisory – eat none of all species – is in place for Eighteen Mile Creek due to this contamination.”
In 2012, the EPA added Eighteen Mile Creek to its federal Superfund program.
After evacuating five families in 2015, the EPA razed their homes on Water Street in Lockport. The EPA also demolished the contaminated former Flintkote factory on Mill Street, which manufactured felt products from 1928 to 1971. The EPA expects to launch the second of three phases of cleanup next year. That work will address some of the contamination in the bottom of the creek and in the soil and at two other industrial properties on Mill Street.
The contamination is the reason the health department advises fishermen to not eat fish coming from the entire length of the creek, above and below Burt Dam.
Fisherman’s Park by Burt Dam in Newfane attracts more than 10,000 visitors each year. Steps off the main path near Burt Dam are piles of shattered ceramic and glass electrical surge protectors. Scott Scheffler, who manages the park for the Town of Newfane, said the glass and ceramic had been cleaned up in the past, but the material “reappears” after runoff from rain storms.
The DEC’s stocking program provides a huge boost for recreational fishing at the creek from Olcott to Burt Dam. State data from 2011 to 2015 shows the DEC has stocked the creek below Burt Dam with more than 800,000 salmon and steelhead.
“We made a conscious decision not to prohibit recreational fishing as a consequence of chemical contamination,” said LaPan of the DEC.
Nonetheless, the popularity of the fishing hole did concern EPA officials.
According to a Niagara County Soil and Water Conservation District survey published in 2008, EPA officials visited the park to check on the creek’s health. The survey noted the glut of fishermen at the park – a scene that shocked EPA officials because of the health department’s fishing advisory.
EPA officials also noticed the lack of warning signs.
The 2008 county survey states EPA officials worked with the health department to design signs to warn fishermen against eating the fish. Although Fisherman’s Park includes about a dozen various signs, none directly advise against eating the fish. Fishermen told Investigative Post that they did not recall seeing any signs along the creek in Lockport, either.
Beau Brooks said “never in a million years” would he eat fish from the creek. He recently fished a section of the creek in the city, not far from the fenced in Superfund property, where the stench of sewage was strong. He also said there are other species of fish not stocked by the DEC, such as walleye and bass, that attract fishermen. Those fish likely spend more time in the creek, and are therefore exposed longer to contaminants.
In addition, a southern portion of the creek bank near Water Street is strewn with garbage, such as TV sets, printers, mattresses, wrappers and plastic bottles.
“Fish is always going to taste like the body of water that it comes from and judging by the smell, I wouldn’t want to taste that,” Brooks said.
“There’s no way that everybody there is taking the time to flip through a guide to find a couple of sentences on one specific tributary in the entire state of New York,” he said. “That’s unreasonable.”
DEC officials said they thought they saw warning signs in past visits to the creek. Town of Newfane officials refused to discuss the lack of warning signs at Fisherman’s Park, but the 2008 survey states that Newfane officials at that time “decided not to erect signage.”
“At the end of the day people have to make a decision on what they’re going to do with those fish,” said LaPan.
Greg Giusti, an advisor for forest and wildlife ecology at the University of California, said the prudent response from state and local governments would be to erect warning signs in visible locations along the entire creek.
“But it strikes me as odd that in a place where the recommendation is don’t eat the fish, that some of the most highly desirable fish to catch and eat are being planted. It seems counter intuitive,” he said.
“To me, that’s baiting.”