Today, GreenWatch is pleased to publish a guest column by Lynda Stephens. Stephens has been a long-time advocate of Buffalo’s Outer Harbor and has expressed her concerns about contamination issues, clean-up strategies, and public engagment whenever and wherever she can. For more on Lynda Stephens, see the short biographical paragraph at the end of the article.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are of the author’s alone.
Dangers at the Outer Harbor, an Expose
by Lynda Stephens
Buffalo, we have a problem! We are missing intelligent discussion and understanding of contamination issues plaguing Buffalo’s Outer Harbor (OH).
Early 1800’s, Lake Erie’s shoreline was east of Fuhrmann Boulevard and present day Route 5. Landfilling activities began in 1874, and continued to 1986. Industrial fill, construction debris, bulk storage and railroad activity left a legacy. The legacy includes hazardous substances that can threaten human health and the environment. OH developers are required to implement brown field remediation to ensure safe uses. Lake Erie is bi-national water, shared with Canada. It flows into the Niagara River. Lake Erie is the source of drinking water for Buffalo and other Western New York and Canadian communities. The lake sustains fish and wildlife that in turn sustain us.
Example #1, a “do it right” project: NFTA owned over 100 acres of OH property when they proposed and, in 2002, gained approval of NYS Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) and Department of Health (DOH) to build a lakeside pedestrian-bicycle path. DEC’s 2002 Record of Decision (ROD) is a detailed environmental report including OH history and new test results. This ROD defines requirements to reduce “potential threat to human health associated with direct contact or ingestion of contaminated surface soils under potential future land use scenarios and potential threat to the environment associated with the impacts of erosion of contaminated soil to Lake Erie”. Minimum soil cover requirements, stabilization of shoreline, and deed restrictions ensured integrity of NFTA’s brown field remedial work and restricted inappropriate future uses.
Recent history displays examples of failure to acknowledge contaminants and lack of appropriate protections for human health and environment. Example #2, new State Park at OH’s south end: Imagine contaminated brown field materials, removed from an old concrete parking lot, being dumped near lake’s edge. It actually happened. The mound was then touted as a “sledding hill”. In 2016, eastward winds carried bits of contaminants from the “hill” towards the children’s playground while children were playing. Eventually the brown field hill was covered with what is, hopefully, impervious material; then covered with soil. The hill is now fenced off. The question, “Who blocks lake views with a big hill?” pales before considerations of human health and the environment.
Example #3, Queen City Landing (QCL): This privately owned OH site (former Freezer Queen), has many contaminants, including: petroleum products, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), chromium, and manganese. DEC identified these “contaminants of concern” at QCL. Manganese can cause nerve damage. The other three include carcinogens, known to cause cancer. QCL owners want to build a 23-story apartment complex here.
In May 2016, QCL owners used consultant findings of suspected PCB (a carcinogen), in Freezer Queen’s basement to justify its demolition and enable more testing. Oddly, only a handful of test results from that area were included in QCL’s Alternatives Analysis Report, recently submitted to DEC. This report presents QCL’s preferred brown field cleanup plan. The preferred plan elicited concerns from Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper, the League of Women Voters of Buffalo/Niagara, and private citizens during DEC’s recent public comment period.
In 2016 and 2017, QCL owners stripped the eastern parcel of all protective coverings: buildings, parking lots and roads. The recent lake water surge due to high winds (called “seiche”) flooded most of the property. Lead paint residue from demolitions exists in piles dumped on the western part of QCL property. Seiche flooding caused more contaminant runoff into Lake Erie, adding to contaminated runoff from two seasons of snow melt and rain. DEC’s Brownfield Cleanup Program Site Record for QCL states, “The groundwater flows towards Lake Erie.”
QCL property is the only privately held property between Times Beach and what used to be Gallagher Beach. QCL owners are currently under DEC “consent order”, and were fined $50,000 for a safety breach during Freezer Queen demolition—part of a wall fell into Lake Erie, damaging the bulkhead. The owners’ latest construction plan for the 23-story complex is to pile drive through contaminated soils into bedrock 70 feet down.
Should we be concerned not enough is being done to safeguard human health and the environment? YES! Governments are supposed to protect us. What can be done? Best case scenario: City of Buffalo implements “eminent domain”, taking over the QCL property. Owners are justly compensated. City takes action, with DEC cooperation, to cover this brown field for safe recreational use. A City “park within a park” is planned and developed—maybe—with Buffalo Public School students. A fabulous learning lab!
A long-time Buffalo resident, Lynda Stephens is a retired grants consultant—26 years working with clients that included municipalities and school districts. She worked along side engineers and architects on municipal public works project teams. During that time she participated in SEQR training that increased her dedication to positive environmental values. Stephens’s earlier employment for Erie County and the City of Buffalo expanded her understanding of local governments, beyond a political science degree from Syracuse University. In the mid-1970s, Stephens acquired an MBA from SUNY Buffalo, an experience that provided opportunities to conduct research and to delve below the surface of complex issues.