What a Superfund Site Really Looks Like

This past week I took a trip to the old Bethlehem Steel site in Buffalo, NY. Although the general public is prohibited from the site while remediation is going on, I was allowed to tour the site with two engineers as guides. I got the chance to see what a Superfund Site truly looks like, and spoiler alert, it wasn’t the futuristic radioactive wasteland that toxic sites are typically portrayed as by so many sci-fi movies.

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The cold lake breeze across my face really woke me up.

Before we got to the site, we stopped at Wilkeson Pointe at Buffalo Outer Harbor to see what a wildlife restoration project looked like. Although this location is not part of the Superfund program, there are remediation efforts here to renew the natural shoreline of Lake Erie. The restoration in progress here may not look like much on the surface, but there are several systems in place to aid the recovery of the natural environment. For instance, bioswales and rain gardens as well as tall, unmowed grasses absorb urban runoff during rainstorms to slow down the flow of pesticides, fertilizers, and other chemicals into the lake.

The swirling spoon structure next to me in the picture above adds to the aesthetic value of the park, along with a playground and a winding path along the shore. Engineers and city planners hoped to draw people to this location by adding a kayak launch, spots for fishing, biking, walking, and a small snack shack that opens during the summer. Most recently, there have been musical performances in the green area closest to the shore.

shorelines

The ecological impact of hard shoreline structures, created by NOAA.

Next up was Bethlehem Steel in Lackawanna. I was in my element amongst the crashing waves and hard gusts of wind. The site is 140 acres, and while some areas are so barren they could pass for a Nevada-of-the-East, other locations like the old Acid Tar Pits are home to vibrant butterflies, flowers, and plants. Smokes Creek also runs through the site, bringing a variety of fish species even though the sediment is toxic. The guides told us deer, fox, and eagles have also been spotted living off the land.

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A picture of me on the shore between the windmills.

Now, I know I make the old Bethlehem Steel site sound like an ecological haven for lots of animals. While there is lots of ecological value to this spot along Lake Erie, remediation has taken a lot of money and time. Initial shut-down of the company, based out of Pennsylvania, occurred in 1983 according to this New York Times article. The shut-down took a toll on local economy as thousands of workers who relied on the steel mill for their income were slowly laid off. One of those workers was my great uncle Buddy, who worked for quality assurance. It was neat to visit somewhere that my relatives might have been all those years ago.

wind turbines

The turbines along the shore stood over 400 feet tall and had elevators in the main shaft for mechanics to access the wings.

As written on the DEC web page, the environmental assessment and remediation proposed by Tecumseh Redevelopment Inc. cost an estimated 7.5 million dollars. Containment measures began in 2005, but a more intense treatment began recently in 2017 when the government called for project proposals. Treatment for certain areas is ongoing (ex. slurry walls in place at the Acid Tar Pit area). Engineers are hoping the land will be bought out by industries to boost the economic value of the site.

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The ship canal used to be a trading hub. Businesses are starting to move back into the area.

One of the first people to purchase the recovered Superfund property was Elon Musk. Part of the enormous site will become “SolarCity”– a solar panel production company that has a huge potential to make solar more affordable by shifting production to the US. Not to mention, politicians are drooling over the chance for economic growth with all the jobs that the solar plant could possibly bring. The rest of the land is still waiting for buyers.

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Lake Erie was once declared “dead” but wildlife is returning to this recovering site.

We walked through the seagull nesting location to understand the ecological component, or at least that’s what the guide said. I think it was a rite of passage to have to walk through the seagull excrement and not get pecked at. Not many people get to visit delisted Superfund sites, after all. It was really an eye-opening experience!

Do you live near a Superfund site? You’d be surprised how many there are in the United States! If not, does your country have a similar program for hazardous waste locations? Let me know!

From, The Earth Goddess

5 responses

  1. A fascinating post. Pretty much the entire Cleveland area is a superfund site, what with rivers being polluted enough to catch fire and all. One of the ideas I’ve been toying with is to try to connect with people working on some of the many restoration projects in the Cleveland area when I’m back home and do a little write-up about it. This post makes me even more motivated to do so.

    Liked by 2 people

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