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By Mike Hudson

It remains the single largest capital project undertaken by the city since Mayor Paul Dyster was elected in 2007. Today it is far behind schedule, way over budget, and supremely dangerous, with high concentrations of radioactive isotopes such as Thorium 230 and 232, along with more garden-variety hazardous materials like PCBs.

And both the contractor on the project and the senior radiation technician on the job say they're being pressured by the city and its architectural and engineering firm, Wendel Duchscherer, to simply leave the deadly materials where they are, cover them up with clean dirt and pave over them again.

David Pfeiffer, owner of Man O Trees Contracting in West Seneca, said City Hall wants the project complete prior to the fall elections. The chances of that happening, he said, were slim and none.

"We've been leaving material in place that's off the map insofar as radiation goes," Pfeiffer said. "This has been at the direction of (City Engineer) Jeffrey Skurka and representatives of Wendel."

The reconstruction of Lewiston Road began two years ago this month after former city engineer Ali Marzban signed off on it. Marzban was not licensed to practice engineering anywhere in the United States at the time, though numerous newspaper articles quote Dyster defending his man and stating he had full confidence in his choice of Marzban.

"There's a legal exposure here. By not saying anything, we can be sued civilly and even prosecuted for doing what we're being told by Dyster's people," Pfeiffer said. "The first time somebody dies of cancer up there, they're going to come after us."

The project was supposed to have taken 24 months and cost $7.7 million. Today, 24 months later, the project's completion is nowhere in sight, and costs have soared to more than $10 million.

State Sen. Mark Grisanti, who heads up the Senate Committee on Environmental Conservation, has taken a strong interest in the fiasco, and is considering holding hearings on the contamination, and sources in Albany told the Niagara Falls Reporter over the weekend that reburying deadly radioactive and chemical hazardous waste is illegal under state law.

State environmental regulations call for background radiation levels no greater than 9,000 counts per minute on a Geiger counter, but officials have found many areas along Lewiston Road where the count is as high as 140,000 per minute.

"This situation needs to be investigated by someone outside of the city of Niagara Falls," Pfeiffer said. "We're being told to leave a hazardous situation in place as though we'd never even seen it."

In addition, environmental inspectors working on the job have reported huge PCB concentrations along the stretch of road that houses Maple Avenue Elementary School.

"There was a gross misrepresentation of the job by Wendel (Duchscherer)," Pfeiffer said, in terms of the amount of radioactive material in the road. "That's some hot stuff. I would not want to be living on top of something like that."

Pfeiffer said that the original contract called for the removal of 550 yards of radioactive material, but once the work began, thousands of yards of the hazardous material was encountered.

"We had Mayor Dyster out there one day, right at the corner of Findlay Drive, and it was 70,000 counts on the Geiger counter," Pfeiffer said. "We showed him, and he just walked away. He didn't want to know."

The deadly materials are remnants from the Manhattan Project, which developed the nuclear bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. The long-term effects of radiation exposure in humans was little understood 65 years ago, and some of the culprits who helped create catastrophes like Love Canal and Bloody Run thought nothing of using highly contaminated slag as roadbed material along much of Lewiston Road and Buffalo Avenue.

"Anyone who's driven through the construction area can tell you how much dust is being kicked up, all of which contains airborne radioactive particles," Pfeiffer said. "We told them we wanted to hose it down to reduce the dust and the risk, but were told the city couldn't afford the water." In his State of the City speech earlier this year, Dyster made light of the serious radioactive hazard presented by his project.

"After a slow start while we figured out how to deal with radioactive slag under the roadbed, we're finally making progress on Lewiston Road," Dyster said. "It's going slower than we had hoped, but hey, we waited 40 years to get this job started."

Eight months and a couple million dollars later, the project is little more complete than it was in January, and Dyster's flippant remarks seem even more inappropriate than they did at the time.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com Aug. 23, 2011