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Cattaraugus Creek is a stream, approximately 68 miles (109 km) long, in western New York in the United States. The creek drains a wooded rural portion of western New York southwest of Buffalo into Lake Erie. In its lower course it flows primarily through the Cattaraugus Reservation of the Seneca tribe. The word Cattaraugus means "foul-smelling river bank." This name is a result of the natural gas that oozes from the river mud.
The creek rises in Java Lake in Wyoming County. In the village of Arcade it is joined by Clear Creek. It flows westward out of Wyoming County to the hamlet of Yorkshire, where the creek becomes the boundary between Erie County to the north and Cattaraugus County to the south. From Springville to Gowanda, Cattaraugus Creek passes through the Zoar Valley Multiple Use Area. This conservation zone is a favorite recreation area for fishing and rafting. The South Branch of Cattaraugus Creek originates in East Otto and flows northwest to Cattaraugus Creek along the Persia-Otto town line, joining the main creek just east of Gowanda, a village which straddles the main stem of the creek and is thereby in two counties. Along its lower course Cattaraugus Creek flows past the hamlet of Versailles, on the south bank of the creek in the Cattaraugus Reservation. For its final miles, the creek forms the border between Erie County and Chautauqua County, then flows into Lake Erie by Sunset Bay in the town of Hanover in Chautauqua County.
Nuclear waste has contaminated Cattaraugus Creek and other areas around West Valley, New York. Although almost all of the high-level nuclear waste has been removed, according to the Department of Energy (DOE), nuclear and hazardous wastes are still buried in unlined trenches on two sites at a former privately operated nuclear fuels reprocessing facility alongside Cattaraugus Creek north of the village of West Valley in Cattaraugus County. The DOE's Demonstration Project at the site transferred high-level nuclear waste into glass canisters. Reprocessing of spent fuel rods from military and civilian nuclear power plants between 1966 and 1972 resulted in burial of low-level radioactive waste (LLNW) on 22 acres (89,000 m2) and burial of high-level radioactive waste on another 7 acres (28,000 m2) there.
The facility that created the nuclear waste there closed in 1972, and was begun in 1961 by Nuclear Fuel Services (NFS), a subsidiary of W.R. Grace & Co. (the focus of the book and film A Civil Action) and American Machine & Foundry, on 3,345 acres (13.54 km2) of land leased from the State of New York. The Atomic Energy Commission reported in 1966 that 5 million US gallons (19,000 m3) of liquid radioactive wastes were discharged into on-site streams and Cattaraugus Creek, into which on-site streams flow. These activities were authorized by the State of New York, title owner of the entire site through its agency, the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA,) and by the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), successor to the Atomic Energy Commission. NYSERDA holds a license from the NRC, which has ultimate jurisdiction over high-level nuclear wastes.
Getty Oil took over the site in the 1970s and continued receiving nuclear fuel rods and dumping nuclear waste there until 1976 when, after numerous releases to the ground and atmosphere, public concern over contamination led the DEC to withdraw its permit for discharges into Buttermilk Creek. This, together with more stringent federal regulations and greater economic competition for nuclear waste disposal led NFS to shut the plant down, leaving New York State with the property. Although cleanup of some high-level nuclear wastes was begun in the 1990s and continues, regarding LLNW, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has stated, "There is no intent to recover the wastes once they are buried."