The Manhattan project as many know, was the US, UK, and Canadian Governments project to develop the first atomic bomb. Fewer people also know that the Manhattan Project was being conducted in Oak Ridge, TN as well as Los Alamos National Laboratory and at a nuclear production site near the Columbia River in Washington State.
What many people do not know, is there were many other places where the radioactive elements of the program were being developed. In the early 40′s the Buffalo – Niagara area was one of the nations powerhouses. The nearby Niagara Falls hydro generating plants were a source of cheap power for many of the nations industries which choose to locate themselves close to it. Because of this industrial capacity, the industries of the Buffalo – Niagara area were among the first industries in the nation to deal with radioactive materials.
A few examples of local industries which were involved in the Manhattan project:
- Linde Air Products (Union Carbide) of Tonawanda Processed uranium oxides into green salt.
- Simonds Saw and Steel of Lockport milled processed uranium into fuel rods for reactors.
- ElectroMet (Union Carbide) of Niagara Falls processed and recycled uranium and thorium into ingots and billets.
- U.S. Vanadium (Union Carbide) of Niagara Falls processed uranium ore.
- Hooker Chemical of Niagara Falls supplied and recycled chemicals for the refining process.
- Titanium Alloys Manufacturing (TAM Ceramics aka Ferro Electronics) of Niagara Falls recycles uranium and thorium metals and produces to this day zirconium.
- Bethlehem Steel of Lackawanna was involved in experiments regarding the processing of uranium and thorium metals.
This was all well and good for the economy in the area. The Manhattan Project was a large contributor to the local economy at the time, and many plant workers relied on this work to sustain a living. But at what cost to their health?
Factory workers were never told about the suspected dangers of uranium or thorium at the time. While science knew that too much radiation was bad for the human body, thanks to the work of Marie Curie, no one ever informed the workers of any such safety risks. While production limits were put in place as a means of safety to secretly protect workers from overexposure, these limits were often ignored or raised if production was behind. Factory workers were provided gloves and masks but few used them, choosing to work with their bare hands.
Workers were used to processing various types of metal and ceramics, and were used to handling it with their hands. Supervisors watched knowingly, but nothing was ever said. Factories even had regular visits from scientists who studied the effects of the radiation on the factories workers. Workers who fell sick, were often taken off of the production floor and placed at a desk job. No explanation was ever given for their poor health, and eventual early death.
This wasn’t all. Workers would tract uranium back home, on their clothes and in their hair. Over time this trend would raise radiation levels in their own home, and the family would also show signs radiation poisoning.
While scientists studied workers in these factories, they began to worry about potential lawsuits down the road. Therefore ‘official’ research began to find out what effect radiation would really have, and how much radiation was needed to cause these effects. Such experiments were undertaken at the University of Rochester. These experiments were done on non-consenting humans who visited the universities Hospital for a variety of reasons (the subjects were usually regular patients in the hospital, so they could easily track effects over time). Doctors would inject plutonium into the subjects bloodstream and track the effects over time. Some patients died within 6 days of the injection, others lived for decades.
Dogs and other domesticated animals were also experimented on at the University of Rochester. The radioactive bodies of these animals were all buried at the Lake Ontario Ordinance Works (LOOW) in Lewiston. The LOOW was a failed US Army TNT plant, which quickly became a radioactive dumping site.
The US Army corps of Engineers was the primary overseer of the Manhattan Project in the Buffalo – Niagara area. When it came to disposing of the radioactive waste, they were the people to call. Often the US Army would truck the waste away from the industries for free, and dump the waste at the LOOW or other ‘army approved dumping sites’ (read: anywhere they could dump it without it being noticed). There are more then 25 documented dump sites for radioactive waste in the region. Only a few have been cleaned up, and as many as 50 undocumented sites may still exist. In some places, you can still search and find actual yellow 45 gallon drums with the radioactive symbol on them, rusting away in fields or groves of trees.
However, often the US army corps of Engineers would tell companies to dispose of the waste on their own. So companies did. Back then it was common practice to pump chemicals into the ground, or into neighboring bodies of water. Under a suggestion from the US Army, Linde Air in Tonawanda pumped millions of gallons of radioactive waste into wells on the company property. This waste was dumped very close to nearby Two Mile Creek, and has never been recovered or cleaned up.
The Union Carbide plant in Niagara Falls is also a large dumping ground. Hundreds of tons of radioactive waste was buried on the Union Carbide properties there. Most was never recovered, and remains there to this day. In some areas, radioactivity readings taken from the roadway near the former Union Carbide sites are as much as 50 times higher them normal radiation background levels.
The Love Canal was one example of the problems which still plague some parts of the Buffalo – Niagara area. Whole fields and tracts of land in the Buffalo – Niagara region have been paved over or hard capped with clay, in order to reduce or contain industrial waste. There are some fields in Niagara Falls that will randomly catch fire and burn from underground, the chemical vapors fueling hot wildfires which the fire department must fight wearing chemical protection suits.
The LOOW in Lewiston was perhaps the biggest dumping site in the area. Radioactivity readings in the 80′s measured in some places (specifically some open air silos within-which plutonium was dumped) 500,000 times background radiation levels (that would rank up there with Chernobyl). Most of the area has been now turned into a high security, hazardous waste dump which is managed by Waste Management. It is interesting to note that the richest residents in Niagara Falls / Lewiston are involved in some aspect of waste cleanup and management. The LOOW site deals with some of the worst and most dangerous items in the world.
I have a friend who used to drive his motor bike through the area, and he once had the chance to measure the radioactivity of his motorbike after driving through some mud on the LOOW property, and it read 1000 times background.
Other areas which I have not mentioned yet are located in Tonawanda. Ashland Oil and Hooker Chemical still contain a lot of radioactive waste. Most of it has been contained in the large clay capped ‘land fills’ which border each side of the I-290 just south-east of the Grand Island bridge. However some abandoned structures along River Road are still Highly Radioactive!
There is a rusting structure near the Isle View Commerce Center development area, which features a large rusting chemical storage tank. That location is very much contaminated with radioactive waste. (This location has been reclaimed and cleaned up since this post was written).
The former LTV site in South Buffalo (Abby Street area) has been mostly cleaned up. However it was also a large dumping ground, and there were incidents of chemicals and radioactive waste seeping up from the ground into neighboring residential properties. This prompted swift cleanup action.
Its hard to gauge really what effect this has on the current population. While much of the waste remains dumped, has it gotten into our water supply? Has the excess in environmental radiation caused any health risks? Well, with the local economy in such a poor state, this contamination does not help the area in terms of hopes for re-development. While Buffalo may be a prime site for industry, the cost of re-developing some of the land here, and the risk associated to potential land buyers (i.e. not knowing what may be buried on their land) scares a lot of developers away.
Additional reading may be found here.