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A Long Fight for Justice on Eighteen Mile Creek

I enjoyed a freewheeling fairytale childhood along Lake Ontario and Eighteen Mile Creek. Most everyone who grew up here would say the same. I hold sepia memories of walking the wooded creek with my cousins in search of hidden treasure and flexing my athletic prowess in poorly calculated and short-lived attempts to swim to Toronto.

As a child, the reality of the waters rolled off my back. I knew I was scrubbed clean after swimming and told not to swallow the water but wasn’t sure why. When my dad brought home a beautiful salmon, I was confused but not concerned how the question “should we eat it” required so much debate.

An autoimmune diagnosis at 18 is what finally forced me to confront what my neighbors have been confronting for decades. Like many, I’m now in a toxic relationship with the creek. While I know I should limit contact –– I can’t stay away. And I shouldn’t have to.

Too often, small towns get stuck with the toxic slop but shifted out of conversations about environmental injustice. People assume we don’t read the news, that we don’t care about climate justice or the planet. Our activism has historically been dismissed on both a governmental and interpersonal level. My hope is that rural America will no longer have to sustain on small, diligently-fought victories. That in reading this, you will know how much we care, how hard we fight, and how much we deserve a creek that stops killing us.

What happens when your escape from the everyday is an environmental hazard?

Every warm day he has off from work, Olcott resident Brandon Henry queues some Tracy Chapman, launches his canoe, and grabs his fishing pole for a moment of peace on Eighteen Mile Creek.

Entering from the Olcott Harbor or Burt Dam, he paddles through the creek’s sunlit center, stopping to cast his line and wait. Above the surface, the air is humid. Sycamore and bird-filled Beech trees dot the freshwater shoreline, weasels, and squirrels criss-cross through the greenery.

Below the water, sediments contaminated with chemicals both a century-old and days-old seep into sludge and through the gills of redfin snappers and salmon. With wooly clouds reflecting off crystal clear water, the creek’s toxic legacy is easy to forget –– until someone pulls a two-mouthed trout from its depths.

Most days, Brandon is one of a fishing few, then the tourist season begins.

Along Lake Ontario, recreational fishing is a $113 million industry. Tourists come in the tens of thousands, towing with them cases of Blue Light, custom fishing rods, and the kind of anticipation that comes with the assurance of an empty creek-front to cast one’s custom fishing rods and sip one’s cans of Blue Light.

They rent waterfront cottages, shacking up for days and weeks. They spend their afternoons pulling salmon and trout from the watershed and their nights basting and broiling their catches –– catches that are considered most desirable by the DEC and have been planted there to increase fishing tourism.

Unless they surrender themselves to the state’s 80-page health assessment, they don’t know that the New York State Health Department’s official statement for Eighteen Mile Creek is “don’t eat the fish.” You’d be hard-pressed to find any clear warning signs in the area.

Don’t eat the fish

Don’t play on the grass. Don’t swim in the water. Don’t eat the fish.

These are the mantras of childhood in Niagara County.

Here radioactive materials sit silently under bowling alleys, playgrounds, graveyards, gardens, and basements. Children learn to crawl over carcinogens, to drive on side streets spotted with unmarked chemical waste landfills.

A day trip to Olcott Beach is rerouted after the red too toxic to swim flag is raised from the rocky shore. Children attending Lewiston School district are warned to stay off the grass because half the world’s known radium and waste from the Manhattan Project are buried just a mile away.

We shape our childhoods on both actual and imagined notions of Niagara County, the ideal of clean water, the reality of radioactive dirt. Splashing around in toxic sludge and canoeing over arsenic sediments, we carry on waiting for the chemicals to catch up.

Niagara County: the dump of the Northeast

Long before the Niagara Falls School Board unwittingly purchased Love Canal for $1, the whole of Niagara County was already a government-appointed chemical burial ground.

During the 1900’s, Niagara County was an incubator of chemical innovation, it’s own synthetic Silicon Valley. Easy access to fresh water and an abundance of energy produced by the hurtling falls made the area a hot spot.

Chemical genies from across the country were drawn to the epicenter by the promise of power. They were celebrated as the portal to the future and encouraged to produce and produce. DDT. Lindane. Acetylene. Dioxin. By the 1980’s, Niagara County was not only reckoning with its own noxious waste but taking on the toxic slop nowhere else in the Northeast would keep. And we still are.

Here trucks of toxic waste travel unlit country roads in the night to Lewiston’s Waste Management Landfill –– sometimes tipping into a ditch. Chemicals as rare and lethal as sulfur mustard are unceremoniously dumped into the freshwater. Congenital disabilities, autoimmune diseases, and cancers abound.

This transformation from native land into nuclear nightmare was slow and secret, unfurling over a century, distracted from by wars, ignored by government officials, and furthered by the delusion that our grass, ground, and water can tolerate as much as we’re willing to thrust upon them.

The beginning

Along Eighteen Mile Creek, the toxification started as early as 1860 according to Lancaster E&E employees. Older community members recall felt manufacturer Flintkote Chemical as a primary polluter of Lockport from 1928-1971. Today the toxification continues with makers of bespoke chemical warfare agents such as Van De Mark and Nourphy Chemical.

As a region, Western New York has two factors destined for exploitation: cheap land and no political clout. Remnants of the Manhattan Project and chemical waste facilities couldn’t exist in the Catskills, Long Island, or Westchester –– the wealthy wouldn’t have it.

So we are left with half of the world’s known radium, more superfund sites than any county in the state, and toxic legacy only time is willing to test.

A community’s call to action

JR grew up on Eighteen Mile Creek. Like many other children, she spent her summers wading ankle-deep in the water, splashing at her sister, and slipping on sludge. Three generations lived in the house, starting with her grandparents, who took up occupancy in the 50’s, when Flintkote was still operating. She recounts them sharing stories of watching the “water turn from orange to blue to green to black”, settling on a stark red before striating into a radioactive rainbow.

Around this time, community members started running their own tests, taking samples from the creek, and mapping their neighbors for miscarriages, autoimmune diseases, and cancers.

Local women compiled master studies to bring to state officials who ignored them. Those with power redirected the accountability toward those without. They claimed the more likely connection was that the towns of Olcott, Newfane, and Lockport were not victims of environmental injustice but, rather, victims of poor genetics.

However, the women kept pushing and pushing, insisting there was an obvious connection between the creek and the area’s exorbitant rates of cancer and MS. Other locals began to put the pressure on EPA. Shirley Nicolas was one of those community members.

As one of the most vocal environmental activists in the area, Nicolas became the subject of Tanya Stadelmann’s documentary: This Creek. In the film, Nicolas describes the evolution of the creek’s toxicity from unknown to abundantly known.

When Stadelmann released the documentary at Lockport’s Historic Palace Theater, the line to watch the film wrapped around the street, after decades of being ignored and gaslit by the government, they had the opportunity to see all the misinformation presented as truth.

EPA’s empty promises

Upon Shirley Nicolas’ success, EPA began a supplemental investigation of the site in 2012. They addressed the urgent: clearing Water Street in Lockport’s lower town, relocating residents, and demolishing homes.

While Water Street was cleared, there are still dozens of residences that call the creek their backyard, who have received no help. Most homes here stay in the family –– how do you sell a house on toxic ground? –– the cancers, congenital disabilities, and autoimmune diseases follow suit.

That was 2015. One hundred fifty-five years after the contamination began, further action is “anticipated to commence availability of federal funding.” Unfortunately, anticipation doesn’t resurrect lives prematurely lost, and federal funding is notoriously dedicated to other pursuits.

Shirley Nicolas was born in 1927, one year before Flinkote’s first chemical infringement. She died in 2018 after EPA collected three rounds of soil samples.

The creek that keeps its people

Ed Petit is an Eighteen Mile Creek kid turned Ph.D. in Urban Planning and Environmental Policy. He kindly allowed me to pull from his unpublished manuscript regarding the intersection of class and containments. Unsurprisingly, he found the poverty rate of Lockport’s creek-neighboring Lowertown “at 28.3%, is more than 1.5 times the rate in Lockport and more than double the rate in Niagara County.”

Other homes along the creek, though not all, share similar demographics. Without support from the government, they cannot rehome themselves. But they can evolve and move on. Having children, raising grandchildren, blowing candles out on birthday cakes, shouldering disappointments, drinking in celebration, they live with the past behind them, and behind the past, the chemical legacy Eighteen Mile Creek, an undulating, clear-blue threat.

But even if they could leave, most would choose to stay.

Crawfish and clean water

The tradition of community involvement and urgency is Shirley Nicolas’ living legacy. Even those who relocate across the country and sprawl to different extremes of the political spectrum stay united in the pursuit of environmental justice for Eighteen Mile Creek.

Niagara Counties Fishery Board member Vic Thibault spent his childhood fishing on the dam and spends the summers of his adulthood in the same manner. Like most, he is a mixed bag of sunny memories and instances of disease and defects. His daughter was born with transposition of the great arteries, a 1 in 300,000 chance. Thibault’s friend’s daughter also came out on the wrong side of those odds. With both of their proximity to the creek, he notes, “it sure seems like a heck of a coincidence.”

Like many Newfane and Olcott residents, Thibault has no interest in leaving. Instead, he owns the first five docks acting as the bridge between Olcott Harbor and the creek. This past summer, he saw bryozoans and crawfish in the stream –– a sign of good water quality.

A generation behind him is Newfane-raised angler, Matt Vogt. Like those who preceded him four decades ago, he ran his own tests on the water. In three samples taken at varying points along the creek, he found an average PH of 6.08, well within the healthy range. Even with the improved quality of the living water, he believes Eighteen Mile Creek is still a controversial topic.

“I’ve met thousands of people who absolutely despise the creek...and others who love it,” he shares.

And those who love it, love it with force. They display their commitment with maternal flair, tending to the creek day after day. They enforce anti-littering policies and dispose of all trash they find floating and pull from its dangerous depths. But there’s not much they can do about the PCB, lead-infused sludge that lines the bottom.

On the surface, we control what we can. We stay on EPA. We keep the creek beautiful. We keep the creek clean. We try our hardest to stay positive, although the ruin runs deeper than we can address, contamination the fault of the selfish and powerful. Rich people who know they won’t have to pay the bill. So, they sow and the rural community reaps.

Looking forward

On its best days, Eighteen Mile Creek undulates softly, a bright blue pool reflecting the colors of pollution-painted sunset. Red, orange, and violet stripes in the sky mirroring the radioactive rainbow of the creek 70 years earlier. But this time there’s the vague hope of cleanup and EPA intervention.

Shouting into the void for the better part of a century, we were finally acknowledged. Just as the creek flows through Olcott, Burt, and Lockport, it flows through generations, acting as the backdrop for the good times and the bad. It’s a constant. It’s a life-source. Most importantly, it’s a home. And that’s something worth fighting for.