Eighteenmile Creek in Lockport, N.Y. has been a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency designated area of concern for decades. Because of recent flooding, the EPA is now weighing the option of permanently relocating people living closest to the creek ahead of a massive site cleanup.
Affected residents say a solution can’t come soon enough.
Located in Niagara County, Eighteenmile Creek flows north for about 15 miles and into Lake Ontario. The watershed has been tested for contaminants by the State Department of Environmental Conservation since the late 1980s.
The EPA took over the testing of the site in 2011. EPA Public Affairs Officer Michael Basile says the creek has been placed on the national priority list, which means more time and resources can be allocated for the site.
“At our meeting on June 5, we explained to the 75 residents that were there that we would be coming back to them with our proposed plan for the first part of the cleanup probably this summer,” said Basile.
Resident Shirley Nichols says she has been hearing about cleanup plans for the creek for years. She pointed out there was a rotten egg smell coming from the watershed.
“Oh and it’s greenish, gross,” said Nichols.
Part of the problem is that the remains of the former Flintkote plant still hang over the creek. The dilapidated building originally dates from the 19th century and before it closed its doors in 1971, was used to manufacture paper and asphalt products.
Resident Kate Fitzsimmons, 26, grew up living across the street from the site. She says water and soil testing revealed a long list of toxins that include PCBs, asbestos, lead, mercury and pesticides.
“I knew that there was stuff in it just because how many fires we had when I was little. I remember like almost every single summer we had some type of fire that happened next door. I just knew that there had to be something in there that was causing it to be so flammable, especially because it’s all brick,” she says.
Fitzsimmons says her family feels like they’re stuck in lower Lockport. No one in the area can sell their house because of the contaminated creek.
“When I was younger, I always thought I wanted to live here because this is the house I grew up in. But, if I wanted to move my parents out and I wanted to move out myself," she says. "I would have to make sure the house is condemned in order to make sure that I don’t have to pay for it anymore.”
Fitzsimmons says she suffers from asthma and now wonders whether the creek might have something to do with it. SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry Professor John Hassett says human health is the number one reason to clean up contaminated watersheds as soon as possible.
“A source like Eighteenmile Creek is a contaminant source to Lake Ontario and so it would wind up contaminating the lake-wide environment. Something like PCBs, when they’re going into a lake like Lake Ontario, some of it goes to the sediments and remains there and some of it accumulates to the fish that are in the lake."
"Continuing sources like Eighteenmile Creek are why we have continuing fish advisories for ‘don’t eat the fish’ or ‘eat limited amounts of fish’ from the lakes,” says Hassett.
Recent flooding added a sense of urgency to the debate over cleanup as area residents had to deal with the toxic water seeping into their basements.
Basile says the Flintkote building will be investigated, but the company was only one of many that were based along the waterway over the years.
“Many of the industrial facilities that we’re looking at are no longer in business. Some are in business, and we’re also looking at municipalities and the county as well. They do an awful lot and they have provided us with a lot of great information, but at the same time we have to try and identify polluters, knowing that if we identify who polluted the creek they can help us defray the cost of cleanup,” said Basile.
Now lawmakers have chimed in urging the EPA to permanently relocate the residents. Sen. Charles Schumer says that would be the cheapest option, at around a quarter of a million dollars to buy out all six families. Basile says that’s a possibility, but they did consider another plan.
“We are contemplating putting down a protective barrier around those properties, which could cost the government about $1.2 million,” said Basile.
Nichols says she doesn’t think capping the creek is going to fix the problem.
“All they’re going to do is take out a little bit and put some soil on it and that’s only going to last about three years. Now, they’ve taken out some of the pollution, they got rid of that, but now they have more pollution that they’ve got to get rid of so that doubles the hazard. They don’t want all that much to get the heck out of there, buy them out, get them out. Every family but one have children down there,” said Nichols.
Basile says the agency is still taking public comment before deciding on a course of action. He estimates that it’s going to take at least five to ten years to complete just the first three phases of cleanup.
“When you look at the fact that industry, municipalities, and even the public could have contaminated this water over the years and into the last century, it’s not going to be cleaned up overnight,” says Basile.
City of Lockport Mayor Mike Tucker was contacted for comment on Eighteenmile Creek, but was in Albany lobbying for flood relief funds and was unavailable.