PORTER — A pair of thick binders were laid out on a table at Porter Town Hall on Thursday evening, each packed with obituaries commemorating the lives of individuals who lived or worked near the Lake Ontario Ordnance Works (LOOW) site in Lewiston.
Many of the individuals died from various forms of cancer and other illnesses, and many current and former residents of the area are battling cancer right now or have beaten it in the past. And residents are pretty sure they know what the problem is.
During World War II, the federal government disposed of waste from weapon production at the LOOW site, and those who live or used to live in the area are confident that exposure to radioactive material is the cause for all the illness.
“I’m going to push this, if it’s the last thing I do, I’m going to push this,” said Grace Austin, who organized a meeting to allow cancer survivors and residents of the area to share their stories on Thursday. “We need some answers for our number of cancers.”
Austin said she has a list of 287 names of people in the vicinity of the Lewiston-Porter School District who currently have or have died from cancer, and that’s only the ones that she’s been able to track down.
At least two dozen residents turned out to Thursday’s meeting to share their stories. Many of the stories had common themes, cases of individuals who lost one or both parents to cancer, battled cancer themselves after playing on contaminated land as children, and one speaker said all of her pets over the years have died from various forms of cancer.
One speaker said she grew up on Swann Road and was diagnosed with thyroid cancer at age 20, while her mother died of cancer at 49 and her sister was diagnosed with type one diabetes, despite no family history of the disease. She said she’s sure her family’s health issues are connected to the LOOW site.
“I never did anything about it because I don’t know who to talk to or what to say or how to prove anything,” she said. “But in my heart of hearts, I know.”
Another issue was that, for a short period of time in the late ‘60s, a third grade classroom was set up on Balmer Road, which is part of the LOOW site. Austin said the concentration of cancer-related deaths among students and employees of that school is particularly concerning.
A handful of the residents who were at Thursday night’s meeting said they attended Balmer Road school and a number of them said they had experiences with cancer.
Some remembered not being allowed to drink the water from the school’s fountains while others recalled being restricted in which areas of the yard they could play in during recess.
A number of speakers, as well as Austin, noted that efforts to obtain records from the school have been unsuccessful.
Residents said they want to see something done to fix the problem so future generations can be spared the illness many of them have had to deal with. Many of them blamed the government for allowing the problem to remain unsolved for so long.
Austin said she plans to continue the fight to have the contamination addressed and that she plans on bringing her concerns to the state Department of Health.