Empowering Communities, Advocating Solutions

Buffalo River: Rising From the Dead


Many people have heard the story or seen the pictures of the Cuyahoga River in Ohio catching fire in the late 1960’s, which provided a horrifying visual of how pollution was devastating the Great Lakes.  The public outcry after the river caught fire helped push Congress to the pass the historic Clean Water Act in 1972.  What many people have not heard is that the Buffalo River actually caught fire before the Cuyahoga in the 1950’s and 60’s.  Not exactly something we want to celebrate here in Western New York, but nonetheless, an indication of just how polluted the river was, and to an extent, still is.

Local industries and municipalities treated the Buffalo River as an open sewer for much of the 20th century, dumping toxic chemicals and raw sewage into the waterway. The result was a horribly polluted river, nearly devoid of life, that also pumped toxic contaminants into Lake Erie and the Niagara River. Historic pollution poisoned miles of the river’s muddy bottom with polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), and heavy metals.  In 1987, the Buffalo River was designated as an Area of Concern, or more accurately, one of the most toxic hot spots in Great Lakes.  The thought of the Buffalo River ever being a destination for fishing and recreation seemed like nothing more than a pipe dream.  Although with the leadership of a local non-profit organization, and significant funding from the federal Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI), the unthinkable is within sight.

Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper, working in partnership with private business and multiple government agencies, is currently conducting one of the largest river cleanups ever in the United States.   Beginning in 2011, crews removed 550,000 cubic yards of contaminated sediment from the middle of the river. The second phase of the cleanup, which began just this month, will remove another 488,000 cubic yards of toxic mud (about 33,000 truckloads of toxic mud) from the sides of the river.  When complete in 2015, the $44 million project will improve water quality, create new habitat for fish and wildlife, and improve navigation  in the city shipping canal.

Although only halfway through the project, progress is already apparent.   Thirty species of fish now live in parts of the river that were once too contaminated to support any fish, and areas along the river that were looked at as an embarrassment are now the most promising real estate in the City of Buffalo.    Not only is the clean up setting the stage for economic revitalization of the Buffalo waterfront, it is putting people to work now.  Jobs have been created for scientists, engineers, heavy equipment operators, general laborers, and others.  The project stands as a classic example of a win-win for the environment and economy, and why Congress must continue to invest in the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.



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