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By John Hanchette

OLEAN -- About 35 years ago, in the late 1960s, I bought a roomy old house on Pletcher Road in the Town of Lewiston. It was the original Pletcher farmhouse built in the 19th century.

The rural land around it seemed abundant and gentle. The soil was rich. The air was fresh. The lawn was huge and good for touch football. An abandoned orchard out back still produced fruit, huge English walnut trees dropped annual bounty, and a small pond just right for hockey during winter freezings pleased me, my kids and the nimble family black lab assigned to play defense for both sides. The well-regarded Lewiston-Porter High School was nearby, almost within walking distance. The couple I sold the house to in 1977 turned it into a successful bed-and-breakfast.

Pletcher Road is now a typical crowded suburban street, with new houses cheek-by-jowl, toys in the driveways and busy traffic. But to this day, that peaceful old farmhouse remains my favorite of all the dwellings I have ever lived in. I carry its picture in my wallet.

The only misgivings I ever harbored about the area centered on a former federal property about a mile down the road toward Model City -- a dump site rumored to harbor ample toxic wastes and radioactive leavings of the Manhattan Project that produced the first atomic bomb. The health authorities frequently assured one and all that nothing harmful was present. Not to worry, they routinely counseled -- only harmless levels of normal "background radiation" had ever been measured. Still, every once in awhile one would notice helmeted and visored men in heavy white or yellow protective gear wielding Geiger counters and taking spot-check radiation measurements near the site.

Those misgivings have apparently blossomed and multiplied in northern Niagara County in recent years. If you are reading this on day of publication -- Tuesday, March 16 -- then be aware a 6 p.m. meeting in the Lew-Port High School auditorium is expected to be overflowing, raucous and key in determining the future health, welfare and peace of mind of thousands of Niagarans who want to know just what kind of hideous substances will be buried beneath the neighboring earth.

The state's Department of Environmental Conservation is receiving public commentary on a hazardous waste "siting plan," which would formally list 700-plus Model City acres managed by the huge Chemical Waste Management conglomerate just off Balmer Road as the only government-approved toxic waste disposal location in the entire Northeast.

Local residents can be forgiven for believing the impact hearing is the obvious child of outrage.

The DEC's original brilliant idea was to hold public commentary meetings on the controversial site plan in places like New Paltz and Long Island and other locations hundreds of miles away -- eschewing the obvious duty to let residents in the towns of Porter and Lewiston learn what's up and have their say. Only a pre-Christmas outcry by the Sierra Club and a local activist group called Residents for Responsible Government forced tonight's commentary session.

The Residents for Responsible Government are set to raise hell about several provisions of the siting plan that they consider dangerous, misleading, unhealthy and unfair:

Sierra Club official Charles Lamb, of nearby Youngstown, believes the real bombshell set to go off at the impact hearing is a prospect not even mentioned in the 50-page siting plan: Is CWM's Model City acreage the intended dumping ground for 650 tons of poisonous PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) to be dredged from the upper Hudson River?

CWM has refrained from commenting on the destination of the huge volume of the toxic river bottom removal, but Lamb thinks as many as 176,000 truckloads of the dredged material may be headed our way if the siting is approved. He writes in the "Trailblazer" Sierra Club newsletter that the DEC -- in its see-no-evil impact statement -- is ignoring results that would be disastrous: "There is no concern whatsoever about putting toxic wastes on top of already contaminated areas and the unknown dangers this may pose."

PCBs -- usually found as an oily substance -- were for decades used by utilities and manufacturing firms as a coolant and very efficient insulator. But in recent years scientists have found them carcinogenic to lab animals, and studies of people in Japan and Taiwan who unknowingly ingested the contaminant showed higher cancer mortality and increased frequency of lung infections. The "New England Journal of Medicine" reported eight years ago that children whose mothers ate substantial quantities of Great Lakes fish contaminated with PCBs exhibited more behavioral problems and lower intelligence than those whose mothers did not.

The Environmental Protection Agency lists PCBs as "probably human carcinogens" and ranks them among the top 10 percent of chemicals toxic to human health. The federal government banned PCBs in 1977 as an unacceptable pollutant and gave the EPA policing and cleanup powers.

But before it did, the mammoth General Electric Co. -- for three decades between 1947 and 1977 -- dumped almost 1.3 million pounds of PCBs into the bed of the upper Hudson River along a 41-mile stretch north of Albany. Sediment drifts. In 1983 the EPA designated 200 miles of the upper Hudson an official federal toxic Superfund site. Three years ago the EPA ordered GE to dredge the gunk from the waterway and pay for its removal -- a long, complicated job that may cost GE more than half-a-billion dollars.

Just the math is astounding. In all, GE will have to complete removal of almost 2.7 million cubic yards of sediment. This amounts to about 40 football fields 30 feet deep.

Lewiston and Porter residents are understandably concerned this may end up in their backyards. While CWM is mum, members of Residents for Responsible Government report conversations with truckers who say they have already been unofficially told by the company there may be chances to bid on such lucrative hauling contracts, and who have been scoping out the Model City site.

Niagara County has long been a national dumping ground for toxic wastes. Its residents are now paying the balloon mortgage on citizen lethargy combined with government secrecy.

The CWM site is part of a 7,500-acre expanse that was top secret during World War II. The federal government -- through the Army -- purchased the acreage in 1942 from mostly farmers, some willing and some who had to be kicked off their land, to build the old Army TNT plant for wartime purposes. After the Army stopped making TNT, the site was used to test rocket fuel, store chemical weapons and as a dump for radioactive, biological and chemical wastes.

It was formally known as the Lake Ontario Ordnance Works. The land is just north of the Tuscarora Indian Reservation. Much of it is swampy and unsuited to burial of waste -- even non-toxic waste. Even state and federal government officials are nervous about seeking to learn the measure of previous folly, for to dig it up to catalog what's there is to unearth anew a Pandora's box of health hazards.

Gradually the property was divided and transferred or sold to other government agencies, citizens, municipalities and private waste removal businesses -- including CWM.

Some of the stuff buried there is downright insulting to Niagarans.

For instance, after the still-untraced anthrax letter bombs (which killed several people) were mailed to politicians and celebrities in the months following Sept. 11, the desk used by NBC television news anchor Tom Brokaw -- an anthrax addressee -- was pulverized and shipped to the CWM site for burial. Brokaw was never infected with the deadly microbe, and his desk tested clean, but it was disposed of just in case. To those who thought of Niagara County first in getting rid of this questionable artifact -- thanks a lot.

And somewhere on the former Lake Ontario Ordnance Works site are the remains of lab animals used in dubious University of Rochester radiation experiments involving plutonium, one of the most toxic elements known to man.

Federal records show a huge cache of radioactive radium-226 -- residues from the processing of pitchblende ore -- is buried only 2,500 yards from Lew-Port High School, where the site plan meeting takes place.

The last time I glimpsed my Pletcher Road house as an owner was shortly after Christmas of 1976 when my oldest son and I drove away in my car. I was headed to Florida to start a new job. He was headed for the airport to return to college. The old farmhouse was pristine in its mantle of snow, winter night air and clear frosty moonlight. The house resembled a Christmas card. At the end of the driveway, I idled the car. My son and I cried silently in recognition we would live there no more.

Were I still a resident of Pletcher Road, I would be crying anew. Then I would be protesting against this plan like all the furies of hell.

John Hanchette, a professor of journalism at St. Bonaventure University, is a former editor of the Niagara Gazette and a Pulitzer Prize-winning national correspondent. He was a founding editor of USA Today and was recently named by Gannett as one of the Top 10 reporters of the past 25 years. He can be contacted via e-mail at Hanchette6@aol.com.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com March 16 2004