Sins of the Fathers: Toxic Waste Legacy for Many WNY Communities
by Linda Danaky

Dunkirk Observer 12/10/2000

Hardly a community in Western New York has escaped some form of industrial pollution due to ignorance or lack of regulation in the past. Gowanda and Markhams are faced with the seemingly insurmountable task of sorting out what hazardous wastes were left behind, how it affects people and the environment, and the best way to clean and restore the land.

A Sad Story, Heard Too Often

In Gowanda, an animal glue factory operated from 1903-1972 on 26 acres along the Cattaraugus Creek. The factory, called Peter Cooper Corporations for much of its existence, cooked tanned leather and extracted protein to make glue. Many locals recall the stench from the manufacturing process, and how the creek changed colors depending upon what the factory dumped into it. Just upstream was Moench Tanning Company where animal hides were tanned. Gowanda was long known for its distinctive odor.

Back then, the ramifications of using such toxics weren't known. Under state Department of Environmental Conservation consent order, Peter Cooper moved 38,600 tons of waste material to the Town of Dayton (hamlet of Markhams) after the factory landfill became full in 1971. Waste from the plant was piled on the 106-acre Markhams site until the plant closed completely after several years of synthetic glue manufacture.

There is another ripple effect. Over many years, farm and property owners took delivery of sludge from the glue factory and spread it for fertilizer or fill on lands in Markhams, Dayton, Collins and Villenova - along with other unknown locations. (Anyone with information about the Markhams site or sludge spreading is urged to call Mike Basile of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency at Niagara Falls, 716-285-8842 or e-mail

The plant site in Gowanda contains two types of chromium, arsenic, zinc and more; the affects on human health are under study but one form of chrome present is a known carcinogen. Similar substances are expected to be found at the Markhams site.

Task Force Perseveres

The Village of Gowanda, Towns of Dayton and Persia, Cattaraugus County, the Seneca Nation and others in 1994 formed the Cattaraugus Creek Basin Task Force after the state "de-listed" the site. The Gowanda site was named to the National Priorities List (EPA's list of the worst waste sites) in 1998 and the Markhams site followed in March 2000. In addition to the NPL listings, task force perseverance paid off with the award of grant funds to find solutions.

One resource is the State University at Buffalo Engineering Program, Technical Outreach Services for Communities. Supported by EPA, these university professionals help communities understand scicntific data, health issues, and provide insight into suggested cleanup plans. They will be working for both sites.

Another resource is a Superfund Redevelopment Grant, recently awarded by EPA as one of 40 pilot programs nationwide, for remediation of the Gowanda site. Michael Hutchinson of the task force called it, "An opportunity for the community to participate in the eventual use of the waste site. The $100,000.00 grant will deal with issues that would prevent redevelopment. We want to see it used; it is one of the most beautiful natural areas in this community."

Frustration over Slow Progress

The EPA process includes many steps after a site is named to the NPL. The Gowanda site is currently under the investigation process, and technicians have been installing groundwater monitoring wells, excavating pits, sampling the landfill portion, digging trenches, collecting soil and soil gas samples, sampling the surface water and sediment in the creek. Health studies are conducted by separate agencies. The data will be examined and compiled, and EPA expects to issue a "remedial investigation report" in the winter of 2001. A feasibility study report and proposed plan is projected for the spring of 2002.

Another part of the process is determining who is responsible for the mess. "Possible responsible parties" have been identified by EPA, including Wilhelm Enterprises, Inc. (former Peter Cooper Corporations holding company) Brown Group, Inc. (Moench Tanning parent company), Albert Trostel & Sons, Badger State Tanning Co., Black Hawk Leather, Ltd., Garden State Tanning, Irving Tanning, Prime Tanning, S.B. Foot Tanning, Seton Co., and Viad Corp. Cudahy Tanning Co., Superior Tanning Co. and New York State Electric & Gas have also been named, solely for the Gowanda site. Called "generators or past owners of the site," they are compelled to participate in the cleanup; the legal issues are extremely complex.

Warning posted near a popular path leading to fishing areas 
on the Cattaraugus Creek Federal Superfund monies are limited, and establishing legal responsibility will be pressed. EPA estimates $1.5 million for engineering and evaluation of the Gowanda site alone - actual cleanup could total many times that figure.

left: Warning posted near a popular path leading to fishing areas on the Cattaraugus Creek.

Naturally, area residents are focused on cleanup, not cost. Dayton residents living near the Markhams site want an immediate sampling of their home water wells, and a study of the incidence of prostate and other cancers in the area.

Lisa Maybee of the Seneca Nation Environmental Health Department has expressed frustration over a lack of EPA studies on the Cattaraugus Indian Reservation, just a few miles downstream. She pointed out that factory wastes were dumped in the creek for 69 years, that many residents still have well water, and that the creek is a primary fishery.

Hope for the Future

Gowanda Mayor Donald Lazar doesn't want the wastes buried along the creek to remain there. "Capping hinders or prevents development. Removal is the better option," he stressed. EPA representative Kevin Lynch responded, "The best option remains to be identified, but digging it all up and taking it to someone else's community doesn't seem quite feasible." Under the redevelopment pilot program, these kinds of issues can be resolved with communities influencing how the sites are cleaned up and future uses.

Alan Rabideau, one of the UB professionals involved pointed out that toxic substances aren't always health hazards; concentration and method of human exposure to substances determine levels of risk. Rabideau is the contact person for more information about all aspects of the sites and can be reached at 716-645-2113, ext. 2327; e-mail:

The interest of the New York State Land Conservancy may lend some clout; one site is at the mouth of Zoar Valley and some kind of "green space" along the creek is favored by many community residents. A partnership with the UB School of Law will help unravel the many legal issues.

The redevelopment pilot is a powerful key to finding solutions to hazardous waste sites for small communities. Funding, public input, a realistic re-use plan that benefits the communitv, and resolution of legalities are all possible under this program. And while finding new industries is also a component, it's unlikely the mistakes of the past will be repeated.

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