DATELINE: PORTER, N.Y.

Living with 214 cans of chemical worms

Dump sites abound in northern New York, and residents are asking questions about cancer

Linda McQuaig February 16 1981
DATELINE: PORTER, N.Y.

Living with 214 cans of chemical worms

Dump sites abound in northern New York, and residents are asking questions about cancer

Linda McQuaig February 16 1981

Living with 214 cans of chemical worms

Dump sites abound in northern New York, and residents are asking questions about cancer

DATELINE: PORTER, N.Y.

Linda McQuaig

There’s an audible gasp in the warm, sun-filled kitchen. Sitting at her arborite table having coffee with two friends, Dona Srock has just heard a stunning bit of news: one of her neighbors has cancer. The 53-year-old housewife shakes her head slowly. It’s the second report of cancer she has heard that day and it only strengthens her conviction that there is some-

thing wrong in the township of Porter.

Srock and her family live just outside of Youngstown, N.Y., in a scenic area full of fields, trees and clapboard homes dating back to the War of 1812—not far from the smokestacks of Niagara Falls. It was this country charm that drew Srock and her husband, Fred, to Porter 25 years ago. But in 1972, a waste disposal company created a landfill dump for poisonous chemical residues just over a kilometre from Srock’s house, and about the same distance from a local school complex. Since then, millions of litres of chemical wastes—including known cancer-causing agents— have been buried in metal drums or stored in man-made lagoons. Fearful that the chemicals are contaminating their air and water supplies, residents and town authorities have waged a bitter, and largely unsuccessful, legal battle to convince state authorities to limit future dumping. As the toxic chemical

wastes continue to pour into the township from across the United States and Canada, the residents of Porter and neighboring Lewiston have grown used to a foul chemical smell and to a strong suspicion that simply living in the area may be a health hazard. Says 33-yearold resident Danielle DeGolier: “What we’re fighting for here is survival.”

It’s two years since the potential dangers of toxic wastes leaped dramatically to world attention with the evacuation

of more than 230 homes located near an abandoned chemical dump in Love Canal, a neighborhood of Niagara Falls, N.Y. And while those residents have won sympathy and compensation, little has been done for thousands of residents still living around 214 other chemical dump sites in Niagara and Erie Counties in northwestern New York.

The focus of their concern is the sprawling chemical dump of several hundred acres run by SCA Chemical Waste Services Inc., a subsidiary of SCA Services, which was linked to organized crime in recent U.S. congressional hearings. The company insists its operation is safe, but residents angrily point to SCA’s history of chemical spills (at least three convictions since 1977) and violations of regulations, and the state’s traditional reluctance to get tough with the company. An additional worry to residents is the U.S. government’s 18,000 tons of radioactive material —

much of it residue from the production of the first atomic bomb—that have been stored in a nearby government silo for more than 30 years. Fears that the silo may be leaking were increased just before Christmas when high levels of radioactivity were found in the liver of a deer shot near the site.

Alarmed by what seemed like a constant series of new cancer cases in the area, Srock and DeGolier and friend Rita Wingo sat down one afternoon last

August and came up with 32 names of cancer victims just among their own acquaintances. They then began a doorto-door survey along the rural roads. “People welcomed us enthusiastically when they heard what we were doing,” says Srock. The brief survey turned up more cancer cases, including five instances in seven houses on one road, as well as a host of complaints of skin and respiratory problems—conditions that can be caused by chemical pollution.

But though residents feel there is enough evidence of disease to merit a full investigation, they have had little success so far in convincing officials to take a closer look. Rev. Paul Moore of Lewiston’s First Presbyterian Church says he has seen at least 50 of his parishioners develop cancer in the past three years, but when he pointed this out to the federal Environmental Protection Agency he was advised not to be so alarmist. Moore says he has also roused little interest among doctors and researchers, who consider his findings unscientific.

One exception is Beverly Paigen, a Buffalo biochemist specializing in environmental toxicology and stalwart defender of Love Canal’s beleaguered families during their campaign for government assistance. Paigen would like to see companies incinerate toxic wastes at high temperatures—a much safer though initially far more expensive procedure which has already been put into use in Holland. In the meantime, Paigen says the residents of

Porter and Lewiston have reason to be concerned about the dumps, and adds that the fact that some of the cancers (leukemia, liver and bone) found in Srock’s survey are usually found in people exposed to chemicals or radiation suggests there should be further investigation. But with more than 30,000 chemical dumps across the U.S. storing toxic wastes from years of chemical manufacturing, officials haven’t rushed to investigate health problems in Porter. “It’s like opening a can of worms,” says New York health department spokesman William Fagel. “You never

know what you’re going to find.”

Lewiston town Councillor Joan Gipp betrays the weariness of five years of fighting the state over chemical dumps. Sitting in her cubbyhole office, Gipp says she has seen local opposition to dumping grow in the past few years. Yet even with this popular support, the town has been locked in a fierce battle with the state, which has felt the SCA operation is safe. Lewiston has spent about $50,000 of its scarce resources in its legal battles against SCA, and citizens’ groups have resorted to bake sales and auctions to raise money to fight the company. But SCA, the third-largest waste disposal firm in the U.S., has used its ample resources to mount a vigorous counter-campaign in the courts and at public hearings. Up until last month, the state had sided with SCA. But in a surprise move in January, the state appeared to be bowing to local protesters by reopening hearings in connection with SCA’s controversial plan to discharge treated wastes into the Niagara River. State environmental spokesman Robert McManus says that the move signals a more rigid policy toward toxic wastes.

Two doors down from the Srock house, 46-year-old Don Smith sits in the small living room of the house he built nearly 17 years ago. For several years he grew vegetables on the few acres of land around his house and sold them to a local store. But after the chemical dump was built, Smith says he noticed his vegetables deteriorate. “One year I put 500 of my pumpkins on display in the store and within a few days they all rotted.” After that, Smith abandoned his farming. But then last year he received a far crueler blow. His 44-yearold wife developed breast cancer and is now undergoing regular chemotherapy. Smith is convinced that the cancer is related to the chemicals, but realizes he can’t prove it. “All these guys with their fancy words may deny it,” he says. “But that doesn’t mean much when you see someone you love slowly dying.”