A landmark agreement between Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will see additional sediment sampling along the part of the Buffalo River closest to Lake Erie, starting this summer.
It is the first time a nonprofit agency has been designated a local project sponsor under the 2004 Great Lakes Legacy Act, officials said.
"It's a win-win situation," said EPA spokesman Michael Basile. "We have the highest respect for the folks at Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper."
The agreement calls for the EPA to commit $400,000, and for Riverkeeper, in cooperation with the state Department of Environmental Conservation, to commit another $400,000 in in-kind services toward the sampling.
"We have known about contaminated sediments in the Buffalo River for about 20 years," said Julie Barrett O'Neill, Riverkeeper executive director. "We are at the last step before we can act and start cleaning them up."
There has already been extensive sediment sampling of the upper section of the river. This new sampling will cover the lower three miles, including the area around the former ship canal.
The Buffalo River is one of 43 "areas of concern" designated by the U.S. and Canadian governments. These areas are substantially polluted with polychlorinated biphenyls, arsenic, mercury and other heavy metals and chemicals following years of industrial use.
The contaminants are contained in river sediments and continue to have a negative impact on wildlife. Barrett O'Neill said fish surveys in the area continue to show "significant tumors and deformity rates across different species."
Those rates are as high as 80 percent in some species and in the 40 to 50 percent range in sport fish like bass.
Barrett O'Neill said results of this summer's sampling, done off the EPA research vessel, the Mudpuppy, should be ready by next year. Already, she said, Riverkeeper is working on a remediation plan for the upper river.
The cleanup should be under way no later than 2009, she said, assuming funding is in place. Barrett O'Neill sounded optimistic about that happening.
"Things have been moving forward on this project at a speed we have never seen before on the Buffalo River," she said.