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If Our Water Could Talk Part I: Buffalo River history

WBFO News photo by Eileen Buckley

After decades of pollution pouring into our waterways, a massive cleanup effort continues along the Buffalo River. WBFO & WNED-TV are examining our region's water resources in a project called If Our Water Could Talk. A special documentary will air Monday at 9 p.m. on WNED-TV. WBFO's Eileen Buckley begins our series looking back to the industrial age that tainted out most precious resource. 

Waterway History

The Erie Canal was completed in 1825 links the Buffalo River and Lake Erie. The Buffalo River includes the terminus of the Erie Canal.  It is where our industrial past began, allowing for transshipment, the start of a booming industry for Buffalo during the 1800’s.

Credit Photo from the Buffalo Erie Canal Visitors Center.
Erie Canal in Buffalo.

"Buffalo would not be here if it wasn't for Niagara Falls and the Cataract. That created the demand for transshipment here and ever since then, we've been tightly tied. We grew up form the water and we need to respect and build on it," said Robert Shibley, Dean & professor of the University at Buffalo's School of Architecture and Planning. 

All kinds of material shipments once moved through the Buffalo River and Lake Erie.  By the 1900's Buffalo began its waterfront port boom -- that was the start of spawning Buffalo’s industrial growth and economic development, but our waters paid the price.

"Because there was once chemicals - steel and grain industry along the Buffalo River - Industry was dumping all their poison and toxic chemicals right into the river, without any kind of cleansing or any kind of filtration," said Western New York Congressman Brian Higgins.

Credit WBFO News photo by Eileen Buckley
Western New York Congressman Brian Higgins at Canalside.

Congressman Higgins has been a long-time champion of waterfront development.  The contamination Higgins spoke of spewed for years from production facilities, the steel mill and our grain elevators.

1966 Presidential Visit to review polluted Lake Erie

In August of 1966 it event caught the attention of President Lyndon Johnson as he conducted a national-wide trip that brought him to Buffalo's waterfront.

"Like so many of our problems, the pollution of Lake Erie is a result of our abundance," said Johnson, while touring the region's waters. "It has been caused by the great industrial might."

During that visit, residents waved signs asking the  President Johnson to “Save Lake Erie Lyndon” and "Put the ‘great’ back in Great Lakes”.  And in a news clip of that trip, Johnson was seen with a bucket  of thick, mucky black water.  The Buffalo River actually caught on fire in 1968 because of the contamination.

Credit The President - August 1966 LBJ Presidential Library Sound | 1966
PHOTO: LBJ Presidential Library
The President - August 1966 -- appeared on Lake Erie in Buffalo to review pollution.

"The Federal Act changed all that, but we were left with a mess. The mess to remediate the bottom sediment that was left by all that industrial waste," noted Congressman Higgins.

By 1987 the Buffalo River was listed as one of the Great Lakes Areas of Concern.  But now -- almost three-decades later -- a multi-million dollar cleanup project  is removing toxic river containments.

Credit WBFO News photo by Eileen Buckley
Buffalo Riverkeeper executive director Jill Jedlicka at Buffalo's Canalside.

"But we are doing what we can that is providing the best benefit for the River and the least amount of damage, and also to protect human health and ecological health moving forward," said Jill Jed is executive director of Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper.

"Because we know we're never going to get every ounce of chemicals that was once put into this river," said Jill Jedlicka, Executive Director of Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper.

Riverkeeper was formed 25-years ago to protect the Buffalo River. 

It was actually her great uncle Stanley Spisiak  who drew the national attention to this region's water troubles during then President Johnson's Buffalo visit. 

In 1966, Spisiak was named Water Conservationist of the Year by the National Wildlife Federation. In a past interview with WIVB television, Spisaik talked about the then dead Buffalo River.

"The Buffalo River was used as a turnaround point for ocean liners," said Spisak. They found if they came into the Buffalo Harbor and stayed in the Buffalo River, overnight, they could save thousands of dollars by getting the barnacles scraped off their hauls and the paint taken off their boats by being in acid conditions that existed in the turnaround basin. It was a regular procedure for ships to go out of their way to come into Buffalo Harbor for that very purpose."       

Buffalo River Clean up

Decades later his great niece -- is leading the $75 -million clean up of the Buffalo River. 

Credit WBFO News photo by Eileen Buckley
Buffalo River clean up partnership.

"This is what he spent his life work for, is to restore this River," said Jedlicka.   

We caught up with Jedlicka during a dredging this past winter along a section of the City Ship Canal off Fuhrmann Boulevard.

Credit WBFO News photo by Eileen Buckley
Buffalo River dredging at Union Ship Canal in Buffalo.

"Who's analyzing what they're pulling up?," asked WBFO'S Buckley.

"Well it's a partnership.  We have the EPA and New York State DEC, Honeywell, Riverkeeper and the Army Corps of Engineer, so there is a lot of technical minds behind this and there is a lot of monitoring and a lot of observation," said Jedlicka.

Corporate Responsibility

It's no longer acceptable for industrial based companies along the water front to dump into the waterways. Honeywell International is a key private partner in the cleanup effort of the Buffalo River.

"It's very important to Honeywell. We do view our responsibility as a short of a comprehensive role," said Evan Van Hook, vice president of Environment, Health and Safety for Honeywell. 

Credit WBFO News photo by Eileen Buckley
Evan Van Hook, vice president of Environment, Health and Safety for Honeywell.

In a WBFO News interview Van Hook spoke about corporate responsibility.

"What's important is that we address the issues now moving forward because places like this really can become tremendous assets for their communities," said Van Hook.

Significant River Restoration began in 2011.  Helping to oversee the dredging and clean up is Martin Doster, Regional Remediation Engineer with the State Department of Environmental Conservation.

"We are working digging into take the worst of the worst out. There are many areas as well that we are not touching for a lot of different reasons. Mainly because they don't pose a threat to the environment," noted Doster. 

It's an expensive project and securing the government and private funding has been key as they work to dig out lead, mercury and PCB's and other contaminants.

"They're very deep. They've been there for a long time. They reflect our industrial heritage, " said Doster.                  

But after the sediments are removed water quality will be critical. There's also wastewater treatment and the city of Buffalo work to upgrade the sewer system to better handle storm runoff.

Credit WBFO News photo by Eileen Buckley
Buffalo River at Canalside.

With Great Lakes the largest freshwater in the world in our region's back yard.  UB'S Robert Shibley notes waters are finally getting the attention they deserve.

"Watching what is happening now at the inner harbor is a great step.  I'm even more excited about  the kind of evolution of the Buffalo River, what we are seeing in the Niagara Greenway -- the family of those things get us to a position where from Lake to Lake -- we live on a water community," said Shibley.

Credit WBFO News photo by Eileen Buckley
Buffalo River

Tuesday  morning, WBFO's Jay Moran will bring us part II of If Our Water Could Talk radio  series. Moran will look at condition and concern of the Buffalo River and the turnaround. Then Wednesday in Part III, Moran will explore the fish and wildlife along the River. On Thursday, Buckley will examine the new waterfront access along the River. And in our final segment on Friday, our series will look at the future of the local waterways.

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