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The abandoned grain elevators on the Buffalo River have become the focus of considerable interest.

These concrete giants with their washboard appearance, have attracted the attention of architects, historians, developers and others. Multiple uses have been proposed and include an industrial heritage museum, hotel complex and boat storage.

I would like to suggest a new use and see the many silos in the elevators serve an environmental function -- to be recycled as bio-reactors and play a significant role in the detoxification of river sediments. In this manner, they would be used to purify the polluted watery veins that once gave them life. But first a little background.

The Department of Environmental Conservation draft report, "Buffalo River Remedial Action Plan," states the river and its sediments have been contaminated by previous industrial and municipal discharges. A variety of pollutants have been identified, including PCBs, chlordane and polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons. Metals and cyanides have also been found in the sediments.

Other potential sources of contamination include nearby inactive hazardous waste dumps and combined sewer overflows, which occur during heavy rainfall or snow melt.

A number of remedial techniques have been proposed, including biological degradation of organic wastes.

Biological treatment systems contain living organisms. These microorganisms are capable of adapting to their environment, and more recently have been technically developed for specific applications. They actually use organic and toxic materials as their food source. They have been referred to as "super bugs." Their use in cleaning up oil spills has been well documented.

Rutgers University, for example, is exploring a two-step approach to the degradation process. In the first step, toxic chlorinated compounds are exposed to anaerobic microorganisms (absence of air). The chlorine atom is removed. The second step uses aerobic microorganisms (presence of air) to complete the destruction or detoxification. This process yields carbon dioxide, water and hydrochloric acid as byproducts.

Locally, TreaTek Inc., the environmental service subsidiary of Occidental Chemical Corp., has done pioneering work in the remediation of chemical waste sites with biologically active microorganisms. This technology is being practiced with great success at their Hyde Park landfill in Niagara Falls.

In like manner, General Electric is working to accelerate and improve the effectiveness of naturally occurring anaerobic bacteria that break down PCBs. This technology will be used to decontaminate Hudson River sediments that contain PCBs. This demonstration project is scheduled to start in several months.

The city-owned Concrete Central elevators, ideally located on The Buffalo River, would be the elevators of choice. They contain 196 silos, 20 feet in diameter and 95 feet high with a capacity of about 43 million gallons.

In practice, river sediments would be dredged or suctioned and conveyed to the nearby elevators for biological detoxification.

The silos could be adapted to operate in an aerobic or anaerobic mode, thereby tailoring the environment most suitable for the chosen microorganisms.

The cleansed soil would be returned to the river banks for landscaping. The purified water goes back into the river.

This concept would complement Rep. Henry Nowak's proposal for an Environmental Research Center for the Buffalo waterfront. It would also provide an operating facility for students of environmental studies and biotechnology.

The elevators are in place and could be readily fitted to serve as bio-reactors, yielding these benefits:

Detoxifying river sediments.

Serving as a demonstration project with high visibility.

Functioning as a learning lab.

Reclaiming part of our industrial heritage.

The concept is realisitc. The technology and talent exist in local industry, academia and government. The recent Great Lakes legislation provides funding. The time is now. All that is required is the will and reflection on an old native American saying, "We did not inherit the earth from our ancestors, we are borrowing it from our children."

Note: Just try to imagine how the elevators would look if they were painted a rainbow of colors to highlight their unique shape. The curved exterior of the silos would look like endless candy canes. Local paint manufacturers could volunteer their efforts and even use the painted silos as a "test fence."

RALPH J. GALL is an enviromental consultant from Amherst.

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