BUFFALO — Thirty-five years after underground toxics turned the Niagara Falls neighborhood of Love Canal into a ghost town, researchers are warning that Western New York is still home to nearly 800 hazardous waste sites that could someday lead to big trouble, not only for local residents, but for the Great Lakes region.
A recently completed study, believed to be the most comprehensive look ever at hazardous waste sites in Western New York, found potential chemical hazards lurking across Erie, Niagara and Cattaraugus counties:
■ Half of the world’s known radium is stored about a mile from the Lewiston-Porter schools.
■ The most deadly wastes from all over the Northeast are hauled along local roads to a dump site in Niagara County.
■ Lead from a former smelting plant is believed to be linked to a deadly outbreak of lupus on Buffalo’s East Side.
■ Radioactive waste from the West Valley nuclear storage facility in Cattaraugus County could someday endanger the Great Lakes.
The vast majority of these waste sites are in the Great Lakes watershed, the largest source of fresh water in the world.
Many are directly adjacent or close to Lake Erie, Lake Ontario, the Niagara and Buffalo rivers, or other waterways that feed the Great Lakes.
An estimated 26 million to 40 million people drink the water from the Great Lakes, which contain more than one-fifth of the world’s fresh surface water.
‘‘It’s important. It’s overwhelming,’’ said Joseph A. Gardella Jr., an environmentalist and University at Buffalo chemistry professor who coauthored the study that was completed by the Western New York Environmental Alliance, the Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo, and the University at Buffalo’s Urban Design Project.
‘‘This information is a wake-up call,’’ said Brian P. Smith, program director for the Western New York Citizens Campaign for the Environment. ‘‘Policymakers need to look at it, digest it, and find out what wastes are in their districts. We need to work to comprehensively clean up the waste in a way that is protective of public health. Protecting the Great Lakes has to be one of our top priorities.’’
Some of the material is left over from industry or war projects.
And more dangerous material continues to be hauled here from elsewhere because this region has become a dumping ground for other communities’ poisons and wastes.
Among the most significant findings:
■ Niagara County has more than twice as many federal- and state-designated hazardous waste sites as comparably sized counties throughout the state.
■ The three counties contain 174 federal or state ‘‘Superfund’’ hazardous waste sites, 43 designated as ‘‘significant threats’’ to public health.
■ Erie County has almost eight times as many brownfield cleanup sites as the average county in the state, and Niagara County has more than twice as many as the average county.
‘‘Are we overburdened with waste? Yes, with all kinds of waste,’’ said Lynda H. Schneekloth, a professor at the university’s Urban Design Project. ‘‘We never knew how much of it was out there until we conducted this study.’’
The job of protecting people in Western New York from hazardous waste mainly falls on two watchdog agencies — the state Department of Environmental Conservation and the Environmental Protection Agency. The state agency has a much bigger presence than the EPA in Western New York and is more actively involved on a day-to-day basis.
Despite the presence of these hundreds of waste sites, the public safety situation is ‘‘light-years better’’ than it was in the late 1970s, said EPA spokesman Michael J. Basile. That’s because the two agencies constantly monitor the sites, he said.