The Exclusion Zone
by Geoff Kelly & Louis Ricciuti - posted 3:36 pm, April 17, 2008
The photo to the left was taken at the Niagara Falls Country Club, on the high ground that rises above Lewiston, not long after the Second World War had ended. The occasion of the banquet was a reunion of industrialists, military men, and scientists instrumental to the Manhattan Project, the success of which had been demonstrated dramatically at Hiroshima and Nagasaki less than a year earlier.
In attendance were Major General Leslie R. Groves (that’s him under the mirror), the military director of the Manhattan Engineer District of the US Army Corps of Engineers—the name Groves gave to the project—and Colonel Kenneth D. Nichols, Groves’s right-hand man.
The others seated at the table with Groves and Nichols were the owners and managers and scientists who guided the region’s leading heavy industries—the people whose expertise and facilities made Niagara Falls, in many ways, ground zero in the effort to build the world’s first atomic bomb.
In the early years of the Manhattan Project, the physicists working on the atomic bomb argued over the bomb’s fundamental design but agreed on one pressing need: a steady supply of refined uranium. Initially—before it built the vast federal facilities at Oak Ridge, Tennessee and Hanford, Washington—the federal government turned to private companies to meet that need. Niagara Falls’ chemical and metallurgical industries were the best equipped, experienced, and situated to the purpose. With cheap, abundant power supplied by the Falls, companies like Union Carbide, Titanium Alloys Mfg., National Lead, and the Vanadium Corporation of American had been experimenting with rare alloys for decades. At the time, Hooker Chemical was already one of the nation’s leading producers of chlorine and fluorine, a chemical essential to the creation of uranium hexafluoride and uranium tetrafluoride—a middle step in the enrichment cycle between raw uranium ore and the isolation of U-235, the isotope used in weapons and reactors.
To answer the country’s call and to win a piece of the $2 billion that the federal government would eventually spend on the Manhattan Project, the region’s industrialists were more than happy to refit their furnaces and mills and take on the special problems that attend handling uranium. Before long Niagara Falls was the free world’s leading producer of uranium metal, as well as its waste products.
At the time the photograph was taken, Nichols and Groves were making a tour of those sites critically important to the project’s success, and Niagara Falls ranked high on that list, alongside Oak Ridge and Los Alamos, New Mexico. The Niagara Falls Country Club was a natural place to hold this particular reunion: The club occupies a scenic hilltop outside Lewiston, a good four miles north of the smokestacks, scorched earth, and discharge pipes at what was once Niagara Falls’ industrial core, where Union Carbide alone—parent to companies such as ElectroMet, US Vanadium, and Linde Air—stretched over hundreds of acres along Royal Avenue.
Lewiston still feels isolated from the environmental degradation that is one legacy of Niagara Falls’ chemical and metallurgical industry, and particularly its embrace of the war machine during the Manhattan Project and the Cold War. The neighborhood surrounding the country club was, and remains, some of the highest-priced real estate in Niagara County. The streets that surround the golf course—Mountainview and Woodland Drives, Forest Road—were home to the industrialists and managers in whose factories the raw materials of the atom bomb had been created.
Some of those at the table with Groves and Nichols almost certainly lived in that exclusive neighborhood. What might they have thought 30 years later, when a study commissioned by the Department of Energy suggested that their streets, like many others in Niagara County, might have been paved with radioactive material, byproducts of the uranium refinement processes their companies had helped to pioneer?
By the mid 1970s, the environmental and human health costs of Niagara’s heavy industries and their cavalier approach to waste disposal were becoming difficult to ignore. People were sick; dumping grounds mysteriously burst into flames; rows of waste barrels rotted along railroad tracks, in shallow ditches, and in creekbeds. In 1978, just as the story that would become the Love Canal scandal was beginning to surface, the Department of Energy—which had succeeded the Manhattan Engineering District and the Atomic Energy Commission as steward of the country’s radioactive materials and industries—commissioned EG&G, a division of the mammoth engineering firm URS, to conduct an aerial radiological survey of Niagara County. The survey identified radioactive “hotspots” as concentric contour lines on a map; the hotspots were supposed to warrant closer investigation, because they represented unsafe and unnatural rates of exposure, indicating some sort of waste contamination.
One of the hotspots identified in the EG&G survey circumscribes half the Niagara Falls Country Club. (That’s it, pictured top left; part of the golf course sits inside the triangular contour lines , which match the roads surrounding the club, as indicated in the map bottom left. The entire EG&G survey used to be available online at the US Army Corps of Engineer’s Buffalo District Web site. They took it down early in 2006.)
What could have caused this contamination? One can only speculate now: Probably it was either fill used in a construction project or road paving material—gravel, cinders, oil—which contained contaminated material from industrial sites.
The use of contaminated waste material, usually referred to under the harmless-sounding catchall “slag,” for fill and paving has been a chronic problem that has grown far more sinister in the six decades that Niagara County has been a radioactive waste dump. Witness these two upcoming re-paving projects (one for Lewiston Road and one for Buffalo Avenue), both of which are complicated by the fact that road bedding materials currently in place are radioactive. (The picture below marks some of the “anomalies” along Buffalo Avenue.)
A crew from West Seneca’s Occhino Paving is currently re-paving the streets around the Niagara Falls Country Club, too, and replacing water lines while they’re at it; there has been no indication that the work was preceded by further radiological surveys to determine if the contamination identified in the 1978 EG&G survey still exists, and there is no record of the contamination having been remediated in the interim.
“Slag” is the byproduct of smelting ore to purify metals, and so it’s not technically inaccurate to refer to the byproducts of uranium processing in Niagara Falls as “slag.” But there’s a more precise and current term for the waste that has plagued the region for more than 50 years. That term is “depleted uranium,” and it describes the 99.3 percent of uranium isotopes left behind in the process of isolating U-235 for weapons and reactors. As we have been learning since the first Gulf War, depleted uranium is deadly, both as a munition and as a contaminant.
Way back in 1943, as Niagara’s factories began gearing up to produce uranium (and therefore depleted uranium, which would be dumped in creeks and farmers’ fields and routinely used as backfill and road paving), General Leslie R. Groves had some notion about the dangers, and potential uses, of radioactive materials (including uranium, depleted and otherwise). Groves received this memo in October of that year, regarding a study called “Use of Radioactive Materials as a Military Weapon.” The memo describes the use of radioactive materials to contaminate battlefields and to sicken and kill enemy combatants. It describes how the material contaminates the water, air, soil, and food, and how the material is absorbed into the human body and its negative health impacts.
The memo proves Groves, and presumably many more people associated with the production of the atom bomb, knew the dangers posed by depleted uranium as he sat down to dinner at the Niagara Falls Country Club shortly after the war. He and probably every person at that table knew that waste uranium products had been poorly disposed of in Niagara County, as they would continue to be for the decades to come, corrupting the environment for millennia.
Think on that the next time someone tells you those were more innocent times.