Shirley Nicholas, Lockport’s ‘Toxic Avenger’ passes away

Last year, Shirley Nicholas was named by the EPA as an “Environmental Champion.” Here, she stands with the letter announcing the award for her years of prodding local, state and federal officials to clean up toxic waste sites in Lockport.

by Joe Kissel

Lockport activist Shirley Nicholas passed away Saturday, Jan. 20 at Briody Health Care Facility.

She was 80.

For decades, she was an outspoken advocate for environmental cleanup in Lockport and brought an unprecedented degree of public awareness of hazardous waste littered around the city.

Born on April 25, 1937 in Middleport, she was the daughter of Gordon and Ruth (Drum) Berean. She is survived by her husband, Richard F. Nicholas, also a resident at Briody.

 “Your health is your wealth,” was her mantra, as she fought to awaken concern and activism for some 21 unremediated toxic waste sites in Lockport. Her concern for her neighbors, with contamination mingling into water sources and potentially compromising the health of residents, drove her to a form of activism and advocacy.

She was the driving force to tear down and remediate the contaminated site at the former Flintkote plant on Mill Street in the Lowertown section of Lockport. Her desire to see change at the Flintkote site, which was across the street from her former home — and feeds directly into Eighteen Mile Creek and Lake Ontario — started when a girl fell from a 30-foot water tower there.

It took her two years to awaken official interest, and after four years, the site was finally remediated.

In 2017, after notable effort, some say pressure from Shirley, an underground 30,000-gallon oil tank containing toxic heating fuel was removed by the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC).

Ms. Nicholas was gracious in sharing credit for success and repeatedly lauded former Alderman-at-Large Joe O’Shaughnessy for his intervention with the state agency.

“It would have never gotten done without him,” she said.

Former Alderwoman Anita Mullane and sitting Alderman Mark Devine worked often with Shirley (on a personal note: It was Ms. Mullane who arranged for Nick and Shirley to be together on her last night; they were kept in separate rooms and Nick held her hand as Shirley quietly passed away. Mr. Devine often took Shirley to the hospital and helped her stay abreast of progress, as her health declined).

Carrying on Shirley’s work, Alderwoman Mullane and Alderman Devine are part of the Lockport environmental action group that plans on tackling the 21 unremediated toxic waste sites Shirley identified in Lockport where people are living nearby.

Number one on the list is Simonds Saw & Steel, which was involved in uranium processing for WWII’s Manhattan Project.

Shirley also said Upson Park should be closed and a fence erected at the entrance due to unsafe levels of contamination there.

Privately, during 2017, she began telling people about her declining health. At the same time, she realized she needed a group of people willing to take on this task and finish what she had worked for, the cause of cleaning up Lockport.

The group has met three times — twice at the Clinton St., Lowertown church where she will be eulogized at 11 a.m. Saturday.

Attendance at their meetings increased from little more than a dozen to more than 50 at the last meeting.

Just prior to that Jan. 4 meeting, Shirley, living at Briody, was literally frantic that she wouldn’t be allowed to attend. Staff members, concerned about her health, were strongly advising her against leaving the facility.  Shirley declined their advice and a group member’s wife — who’s in the medical field — assisted her. She attended the environmental group’s meeting, which was held at the Lockport Public Library.

Wearing an oversized coat and pushed in a wheelchair, Shirley said only a few words — her voice weakened for the first time — still urging those gathered to continue the fight she singlehandedly started for the residents of Lockport.  Her voice was weak at her last public appearance but every one listened.

Long ago, when nobody cared, nobody was talking and nobody listening, Shirley Nicholas broke through the silence. Her words and actions and her bravery will reverberate for many years to come.

Shirley worked as a bookkeeper for William Kugler & Bros. Scrap Metal, Lockport. In addition to her husband, she is also survived by her sister-in-law, Suzanne (George) Nicholas Kugler; aunt of Lynne (Dennis) Berean Lombard, Anne Kugler Durham, Carolyn Kugler and George Kugler, Jr.
Relatives and friends are invited to visitation from 10-11 AM  on  Saturday, January 27th with a Memorial Service at 11 AM in Clinton Street United Methodist Church, 50 North Adam St., Lockport.

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