(WIVB) – A family struck with unexplained ailments has abandoned their home in the City of Lockport under the suspicion that they have been exposed to contaminants from nearby hazardous waste sites.
John Miner said he bought the old wood-style home on Plank Road in June 2018, with the goal of making it the dream home for his family of four. Despite having a city zip code, the property retained its country charm and is among a handful of homes still served by well water.
But what surrounds Miner’s property isn’t as comforting.
Eighteen Mile Creek, a federal Superfund site where no fish are safe to eat, is across the street. A half-mile east, there is a 40-year-old landfill once used by a chemical company to dump drums of toxic chemicals.
“I didn’t really raise any concerns until my family really started getting sick,” Miner said.
Indeed, Miner said he developed skin lesions within three years. And his son is in remission for bone cancer diagnosed a year ago.
The sudden change in their health prompted Miner and his fiancée to dig through reams of historical records and environmental investigations to learn more about their surroundings.
That’s how they learned they live a stone’s throw away from a toxic creek and a short walk from an old landfill used by VanDeMark Chemical.
“So, we started thinking possibly the water is drawing from the creek,” Miner said.
News 4 Investigates requested by Freedom of Information law the Niagara County Health Department’s records on Miner’s well, which showed the water was deemed fit for human consumption in April 2018.
In addition, an inspection of his sewage disposal system in July 2022 found it “was operating properly.”
The family pressed state health and environmental officials to test their well water and soil, fearing contaminants could be migrating onto their property.
The state agreed to test the private well in December, due to the family’s concerns that the cause could be nearby toxic sites.
But the state said the results did not turn up any chemicals historically linked to any nearby hazardous waste sites. Instead, they found traces of per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances, commonly known as “forever chemicals,” in concentrations that would be unsafe to drink under the state standard for public water providers.
The highly toxic chemicals are used in products such as non-stick pans, cosmetics and food packaging, and have been linked to increased risks of some forms of cancer. The chemicals do not easily break down in humans or the environment, hence their name.
Miner said recent lab work showed he had traces of forever chemicals in his blood, which the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said is not uncommon for adults due to the chemicals being in common consumer products. A recent urine test also showed Miner has a spike in arsenic.
What could the source of the contamination be?
State Department of Environmental officials implied that the forever chemicals are more likely to be associated with a nearby septic system, rather than the Superfund site or the old landfill.
Septic systems are designed to treat wastewater, but they cannot break down or remove forever chemicals. As a result, the chemicals pass through the septic system and get discharged into the leach field, and introduced into the open environment.
DEC told News 4 Investigates that the environmental data for the Eighteen Mile Creek site “does not suggest any likely impacts to the property from this site, which is why private wells in that area have not been sampled as part of the Superfund site investigation.”
In addition, the federal Environmental Protection Agency stated that the properties across the street from the creek are not prone to flooding, and therefore unlikely to have been contaminated by the creek’s dirty sediment.
In an Aug. 22, 2023, letter to a federal lawmaker, the EPA said, “we have not found a reason to test the soil and water well [at Miner’s property] for pollutants related to Eighteen Mile Creek at this time.”
“The properties along Plank Road are at a higher elevation than the creek and floodplain soil previously sampled by the EPA in this area, so we would not expect impacts by flooding of contaminated sediment.”
But Miner is not convinced. He moved his family of four into a friend’s home in the attic, and said he has no plans to return unless the state tested the soil on his property to ensure it’s not contaminated.
Neither the state DEC nor the state Department of Health agreed to interviews. State health officials said they will provide the homeowner with “recommendations to address potential exposures,” such as installing a filter that can reduce contaminants from reaching the tap.
“The conclusion that the impacts may be related to the proximity of the septic system were made after the collected data was analyzed and showed no impacts from” any nearby environmental sites, the DEC said.
Miner, who said he had not even heard back from state officials on their recommendations, feels confused about the situation.
“The question is one, where’s it coming from? And two, how are we going to resolve this?” Miner said.
“I personally don’t think it is a septic,” he said.
For additional information about how residents can check that their septic systems and private drinking wells are functioning properly, visit:
Luke Moretti is an award-winning investigative reporter who has been part of the News 4 team since 2002. See more of his work here.