Tonawanda News

Thursday, January 22, 2004

Is Praxair dangerous?

Site manager says demolition is safe; others have doubts

By Paul Lane

Tonawanda News

The scheduled demolition of a building on a toxic site has at least one Town of Tonawanda resident concerned for students at a nearby school.

Site officials however, question the risk involved.

Philip Sweet of Toxic in Tonawanda fears that students at Holmes Elementary will feel the effects when Building 14 at Praxair is torn down. Specifically, he's concerned that dust from the site, which is being dismantled because of uranium ore dumped there decades ago, may be ingested by children at the nearby school.

"It poses incredible problems if it's breathed in," he said. "We need to know that the children are safe ... children in kindergarten through the fifth-grade level are sitting on top of maybe one of the top toxic sites in the world."

The group is looking for a closure to be put over the building to trap any loose particles.

The way they do that is outmoded and antiquated," Sweet said. "It does not provide safety for the workers nearby."

Dennis Conroy, site manager at Praxair, contests this. Most Corps of Engineers workers digging at the site don't even wear masks because of the minimal threat. he said.

"There's a relatively low level of contamination," he said. Is there a risk to the neighborhood? Absolutely not."

The government tried to renovate the site, where the first phase of uranium ore purification for atomic weapons took place in the 1940s, beginning in 1997. The site couldn't get a clean bill of health, though, because some chemicals had seeped through the floor and into the ground, Sweet said.

With Building 14's dismantling, dirt around the site will be put into containers and shipped on railroad flat cars to Utah.

"We're doing the absolutely right thing to remove the last legacy of the Manhattan Project from this site," he said.

While the extent of a threat of airborne materials is unknown, the Kenmore-Town of Tonawanda School District will err on the side of caution.

"When that building is in the stages of being torn down ... we certainly don't want our students in the school when that's happening," Superintendent Steven Achramovitch said.

Achramovitch said he was assured the building itself would not be torn down while school is in session, a step he wants to take just in case materials should make their way to the school.

"We'll take every precaution we need to take," he said. "I don't think that there's any guarantee that if anything becomes airborne, it will only go to homes."

This is of particular concern because an already high cancer rate in the area, Sweet said. State Health Department statistics from over the summer show that general cancers in the 14150 and 14217 ZIP codes are 22 percent higher than the state average. Also, women in the 14217 ZIP code have thyroid cancer at a rate 81 percent a higher than the state average.

"It's really a demoralizing thing to the health structure," Sweet said.

Town of Tonawanda Supervisor Ronald Moline said Sweet shared his concerns during a recent board meeting. The town also is concerned about students at Holmes.

"We have to get it done," he said. "These contaminants have been in the community for 60 years now. It's time to get it over with."

Conroy said the building will be given to the Corps of Engineers on March 31, when the company will have finished evacuating the building, and the project should be finished in by Sept. 30.

Contact Paul Lane at 693-1000, Ext. 115, or lanep@gnnewspapercom.