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An urban waterway's comeback

In the late 1960’s, the Buffalo River was so pollutedit caught fire.

“But it didn’t really get much national attention because that was just the way things were back in the day,” says Jill Jedlicka, executive director of Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper, an environmental advocacy group.

“People expected polluted rivers. It was just the cost of doing business at the time.”

For more than a century, the urban waterway was used as a waste dump by Buffalo’s industrial base.

Now, a $50 million cleanup is scooping out the river’s bottom – still contaminated with countless chemicals. The ambitious project is sparking hope for Buffalo’s efforts to revive its dormant downtown.

Heart of the Rust Belt

As her horn bellows, the Miss Buffalo II motors up the meandering Buffalo River. Long abandoned factories and grain elevators tower over the small boat.

Jedlicka narrates this trip for out-of-town guests. We’re in the heart of the Rust Belt, she says, by way of explaining the ruins on the riverbanks.  

She tells the boat’s passengers that her organization is on a mission to restore this abused urban waterway.

“If you talk to some of the last few generations, people will tell you, ‘I’ve been hearing the revitalization of Buffalo’s riverfront and waterfront for years, it’s never going to happen,’” Jedlicka says.

'Cut and run'

Back in her downtown office, Jedlicka points to a satellite image of the six-mile Buffalo River, which winds though the city’s gutted industrial district.

“We had everything from steel manufacturers, coal processing, die manufacturers, any kind of petrochemicals, you name it,” Jedlicka says.

The Buffalo Riveris listed as a Great Lakes Area of Concern, one of 43 in the freshwater system.

These companies dumped mercury, chromium, PCBs and hundreds of other harmful contaminants into the water, where they settled at the bottom. Much of it is still there. The practice stemmed from the misconception that water could dilute anything.

“Everybody says, ‘Why can’t the industries clean it up? Well, there’s no industries left,’” says Jedlicka. “Companies made their fortunes and then they cut and run. And they’ve left us with this environmental legacy.”

This decades-long negligence resulted in the waterway becoming known as an “orphaned river” – the public and private sector were unwilling to be parents to this troubled waterway. While the City of Buffalo owns the bottom of the river, the water is public. But before the legislation, such as the Clean Water Act, private industry used public lakes and rivers at its discretion. 

For a time, the river was pronounced biologically dead. The public was told to stay out or risk their health.

“This is an example of where government had to step in and create the funding mechanism to take on the legacy problems in the northeast in the Great Lakes,” says Marty Doster, regional hazardous waste remediation engineer with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.

'Why dig it up?'

As a 50-foot crane drops a huge steel clamshell into the Buffalo River, it claws and scoops out polluted mud and sediment and then piles it in a barge to be quarantined.

The Army Corps of Engineers designed this massive three-year undertaking. More than 50,000 truck loads will be dredged and hauled away.

“If we placed all the material on a football field, including the end zones, it would be a pile 300 feet high,” says Mike Asquith, a project manager with the Army Corps of Engineers.

The project dwarfs any previous river clean up in the Great Lakes and is something of an experiment. The process is not an exact science.

Each time the clamshell scrapes the bottom, it roils toxic sediment that’s been firmly settled for decades.

“Some folks might say, ‘it’s buried, why dig it up?’” says Jedlicka.  

“That’s been debated,” says Doster. “Over time you can imagine the depth of contamination that you can get.”

Project officials admit the dredging stirs up settled contaminants, causing some areas of the river to be re-polluted for what they call a “limited” period of time.

“If one were to only focus on the short term impact, one could make an argument that you’re doing more harm than good,” says Doster.

The potential long term benefits justify this $50 million project, says Doster. The dredging is mostly funded by federal and state money. It has taken generations to get to get all layers of government of board.

Numerous state and federal agencies are counting on success here at the Buffalo River to spur more cleanups in the Great Lakes watershed; a region that’s laced with polluted hotspots.

But three years of dredging does not necessarily a clean, pristine river make.

“[The contaminated bottom] is just one of a number of issues in a complicated river system,” says Doster.

New phase

Back on the boat, we pass rowers and kayakers. Migratory birds are hanging around, trying to pluck fish. There’s even talk of residential and commercial development.

The river is primed to enter a new phase after 200 years of abuse, says Jedicka.

“We have to do these projects. We have to restore this river so we're no longer considered an environmental disaster, we’re no longer considered a Rust Belt city,” she says.

But most importantly, she says, this orphaned river finally has a caretaker. 

You can follow reporter Daniel Robison on twitter @robisonrobison.