Plan calls for complete excavation, removal of radioactive wastes
By Terry Duffy
"We now have a path forward; we're now ready to take this to the next level."
So said LOOW Community Action Council member Joe Gardella Jr. Tuesday in response to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' recent proposal for the Interim Waste Containment Structure at the Niagara Falls Storage Site in northern Lewiston. A 10-acre cell constructed in the mid 1980s, it houses high-level K-65 radioactive wastes dating from World War II-era uranium processing, plus lower-level R-10, L-30, L-50 and F-32 residues.
On Dec. 7, the Corps Buffalo District released its feasibility and proposed plan for the IWCS - one that calls for a complete excavation, partial treatment and off-site disposal of the entire contents of IWCS under alternative No. 4.
"The release of the proposed plan for the Niagara Falls Storage Site represents the culmination of years of hard work and informational exchanges and interaction with the local community and stakeholders," Buffalo District Cmdr. Lt. Col. Karl D. Jansen said. "The preferred alternative in the proposed plan will provide the best overall protection of human health and the environment, and is responsive to the feedback and input received from the community and stakeholders during development of the feasibility study."
LOOW Site project engineer John Busse and Corps staffers met with the LOOW CAC to outline, in detail, the Corps plans for the IWCS. For northern Niagara County residents, the $490.6 million plan, once completed, will mark a radical transition for the LOOW site, originally a 7,500-acre parcel that, in past decades, has seen assorted government war-related activities, including dumping.
"The feasibility study/proposed plan came out this year. Our current schedule has us coming out with a record of decision in 2017. From that point forward we're ... targeting 2020 to get a decision," Busse said of the ultimate future of the IWCS.
So what does that mean for area residents? Plenty according to the Corps. As noted under alternative 4, all of the material inside IWCS would be excavated and disposed of off-site.
Corps reps report the IWCS, when constructed, was divided into subunits A, B and C.
Subunit A, containing 28,440 cubic yards of wastes, is where the highest percentage of radioactivity - 98 percent - is found. This includes K-65, L-30, L-50 and F-32 residues - wastes placed within the confines and basements of former buildings 411, 413 and 414 at NFSS, now demolished. Also found in the subunit are assorted contaminated materials, including soils and building rubble and debris from the demolished structures on the NFSS. Subunit A is found in the central and south-southwest portions of the IWCS cell.
Subunits B and C, found in the middle and northern sections of the IWCS, contain assorted rubble and debris associated with K-65 waste handling, demolished building structures, contaminated ore-processing residual materials, and lower-volume contaminated soils. The estimated total volume of both units is 249,632 cubic yards, yet the actual percentage of radioactivity is just 2 percent.
According to Busse, the cleanup process would involve a complete encapsulation of the IWCS cell and the use of robotics to open it up and remove the subunit A materials.
Lower level wastes in subunits B and C at the IWCS would be handled using standard Formerly Utilized Sites Remedial Action Program protocols and equipment, similar to that used earlier at a Corps cleanup at a Linde facility in Tonawanda, Busse said.
No human contact would be involved within the encapsulated unit whatsoever, and the entire IWCS would have safeguards to protect the community with regard to air monitoring and release. Busse pointed out this removal method was successfully utilized by the Corps when it performed a similar radioactive landfill cleanup back in the 1990s at Fernald, Ohio.
"Basically, we'll put a big, tent-like structure over the facility - put it under a vacuum so we'll be sucking air out of there," Busse said. "We'll have remote controls that will be digging into the material."
He said the material would then be put into an airlock enviornment en route to the waste handling facility and there would be zero exposure to workers. All air would go through radon control systems prior to release.
"We'll capture it (the air) and push it through carbon prior to release in the stacks," Busse said.
He explained the high-level K-65 wastes would be encapsulated via robotics into sealed IP-2 canisters 6 feet in diameter and approximately 10 feet in height, and then placed onto flatbed trucks - two canisters per vehicle for transport. A total of 3,800 canisters would be involved and upward of 28,400 trucks would be used in the removal process - one which would see all IWCS wastes removed for ultimate disposal at a WCS-secured radioactive waste site in western Texas.
Busse said the entire remediation removal process would take two to four years.
As to a timeframe for doing this, none was provided Tuesday.
Busse said an ultimate decision on what future action will follow at IWCS would be dependent on government funding, placing the IWCS NFSS project into a competitive funding determination process with a number of other similar-like Corps projects, many classified as still active sites. The IWCS cell in Lewiston serves as a waste repository and is not viewed as an active site requiring immediate remediation.
"We're put in with all the other (sites under) the national program. Then we'll sit there and wait for funding like several of the other sites," Busse said.
He said the priority for funding under the national program, both for feasibility studies and for actual work, goes to the ones that are considered active for remediation work.
"There's a lot of big sites out there," Busse said. "Until they finish up, there's slim pickings (of available funding) for the other sites."
Discussions were left Tuesday with LOOW CAC to pursue further contact with the area's federally elected officials in Congress toward obtaining priority government funding for the project. No cleanup work would be expected until committed funding is available. Busse indicated a "best-case scenario" for this could be anywhere from 2022 to 2032.
But with the Corp's selection of alternative No. 4 - the complete cleanup at IWCS - the process has already begun.
The Corps will hold a public meeting at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2016, at the Town of Lewiston Senior Center, 4361 Lower River Road. The session will include a historical video, a poster exhibit with Corps Buffalo District staffers, expanded discussion of the proposed plan and Corps alternative No. 4, and opportunity for public comment.
The Corps' public commentary period opened Dec. 7 and continues to Feb. 6, 2016.
For more information on the feasibility study and proposed plan, visit www.lrb.usace.army.mil/Missions/HTRW/FUSRAP/NiagaraFallsStorageSite.aspx.