LOCKPORT, N.Y. - Shirley Nicholas lives on Mill Street in the city of Lockport, fewer than 100 feet from the home of a former manufacturing giant. The Flintkote Plant, which once produced parts for automobiles, first began operating in 1928.
After the plant closed in 1971, the property sat vacant for decades.
"It was there for years and years and years and years," Nicholas said. "Forty some years... empty."
The building was finally demolished this year. So now, Nicholas lives across the street from an empty, fenced-in property, covered with "No Trespassing" signs.
For more than a decade, Nicholas and her husband have owned this home on Mill Street, knowing full well they live next to a site with possible contamination from all of the factory work over the past century. A local radio station even gave her a copy of a newspaper from 1916, exactly 100 years ago, which includes the headline, "Anti-Pollutionists To Make Application Soon: Want State Conservation Commission To Stop Discharges Into 18-Mile Creek."
An entire century later, the state's Department of Environmental Conservation has already been investigating the contamination, not only at the Flintkote Plant, but across the entire corridor of the creek. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is supplementing that investigation, having designated the area near the creek as a "national priority" and a "Great Lakes Area of Concern." The EPA is now preparing to clean up several sites near the creek: the Flinkote Plant, Upson Park, the White Transportation property and the former home of the United Paperboard Company.
The creek corridor contains polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), according to the EPA, which "can affect the immune, reproductive, nervous and endocrine systems and are potentially cancer-causing." Some sites also contain increased levels of lead, well above the recommended "parts per million" (ppm) threshold.
Nicholas herself said she cannot garden anymore, because in her soil, she found lead levels more than four times higher than the recommendations for residential areas.
"I don't have children. Now, I'm almost glad that I don't," Nicholas said. "What would I bring them up into?"
On Wednesday night, the EPA held a public hearing at the Niagara County Fairgrounds in Lockport, unveiling a $23 million plan to clean up the contaminated sites near Eighteen Mile Creek. The plan represents a second phase of the project for the EPA, having already completed the first phase.
In that first phase of remediation, the EPA demolished five homes this year on Water Street near the creek in Lockport and relocated the families living on those properties. The Flintkote Plant's demolition was also part of the first phase.
For Phase 2, the EPA has announced in proposal documents that it would like to use a combination of "excavation, capping, monitoring and maintenance" for the creek corridor sites, subject to public input.
Remedial Project Manager Jaclyn Kondrk said the agency will accept public comment through the end of September, at which point it will draft a "record of decision" and then move into the design phase. Ultimately, it could take a few years to complete construction as a part of the cleanup, according to Kondrk.
"This is to protect the people," Kondrk said, "and make sure everyone's taken care of there."
Kondrk added that the EPA is continuing to investigate the exact source of the contamination. The agency believed the Flintkote Plant may have been the chief contributor, but initial investigations haven't proved that theory so far. If the EPA can prove who polluted the creek, the culprits can be held financially responsible. Otherwise, as a part of the Superfund program, tax dollars may fund the multi-million dollar cleanup plan.
In the meantime, Kondrk said the contamination may not be an immediate threat to the public, but it's certainly a potential hazard that must be taken seriously.
"They should be worried about coming in contact with some of the soils... might have elevated levels of PCBs, and lead, and they can cause some neurological effects if it's over time," Kondrk said. "It wouldn't be the first time you touch it, it's more of an exposure over time that we look at. That's where the risk comes from."
Due to this risk, Shirley Nicholas and her husband tested themselves for elevated lead levels. Both were healthy.
"It just makes me angry," Nicholas said, "and also makes me want to cry."
This is not the final phase of the EPA's work. As a third phase, the agency will investigate the impact of the contamination on Lake Ontario. That investigation is still pending, according to the EPA.