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Reclaiming the Buffalo riverfront A $50 million project aims to remove toxic sediment and transform an industrial wasteland

A century's worth of toxic waste will be dredged out of the Buffalo River over the next two years as part of an ambitious, $50 million cleanup effort that aims to turn a 6.2-mile industrial wasteland into a place the public can again enjoy.

The project, the biggest cleanup effort in the history of the Great Lakes, is being funded by a slew of federal, private and nonprofit sources and will be completed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. It kicked off Tuesday with a ceremony at Canalside. When all is said and done, more than one million cubic yards of toxic sediment will have been removed from the river.

"The objective is very, very simple: It's to create an interconnected system of parks and public places along the water's edge," said Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, who spoke at Tuesday's ceremony about how a cleaner river can benefit the area. "It's to remove the barriers to access, so that thousands of people, as we have witnessed this year, can come and enjoy this great resource that is all of ours."

Dotted with old grain elevators, abandoned factories and even a car junkyard, the Buffalo riverfront has been one of the "toxic hot spots" in the Great Lakes for decades.

Much of the first few miles of the river has no natural shoreline, and tall retaining walls keep the water flowing out to Lake Erie. Throughout the river, even upstream toward the greener shoreline areas that have been targeted for development, the water remains a muddy, greenish-gray color.

So, after years of neglect, what exactly is down there, below the water's surface?

"It's more like what's not down there," said Jill Jedlicka of Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper. She has spent the past eight years lining up funding and organizing a coalition of partners to take on the massive cleanup.

"Really," Jedlicka continued, "because there's been over 100 years of industrial usage of this river, if you tested for every chemical, there's literally hundreds of them."

The main pollutants are lead, mercury and PCBs, the dumping of which has been banned by federal regulation for decades. But these chemicals remain deep below the water, and when they are exposed, they can easily get into the ecosystem, killing plant life, making it unsafe to eat fish and making the river an unhealthy and undesirable place to swim.

This greatly limits public and private development of the area around the river, something that has been elusive on the Buffalo riverfront for many years.

But the hope is that certain areas can be targeted to allow for more access. State Sen. Tim Kennedy, D-Buffalo, said the same "laser-beam focus" he, Higgins and others put on Canalside over the past six years needs to be put on the Buffalo River. "I'd like to see small businesses, retail, restaurants and a critical mass of development that will not only help bring people down here but keep them coming back," said Kennedy, who represents parts of South Buffalo and Lackawanna. "It's a blank canvas we're working with, but it's a fantastic thing, we're at the very beginning of the new waterfront, and with continued investment, the limits are endless."

The first phase of the project is expected to be completed by November. Under the command of Lt. Col. Stephen H. Bales, the Army Corps of Engineers will be dredging the river almost 24 hours a day, seven days a week, starting later this month.

Crews will remove the contaminated sediment and place it at a secure location in Buffalo's Outer Harbor, near the abandoned Bethlehem Steel plant.

"I am very optimistic we will leave a legacy we can be proud of," said Bales, "a clean and fully restored Buffalo River that enables economic growth, recreational use and enables environmental and habitat restoration."

For years, the Army Corps of Engineers has been using the site near Bethlehem Steel to remove sediment as a way of keeping the Buffalo River accessible to commercial traffic. The hope is that one day, even that area can be used as a public green space, something that has happened with a similar site on Lake Erie in Cleveland.

Once Bales and his crew complete their phase of the project, further dredging will need to be done elsewhere in the river, Jedlicka said. Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper is currently in the process of submitting an application to the EPA for funding to remove more sediment. The hope is that by the end of the year, the application can be completed, and another contractor could resume dredging by spring 2012 for completion sometime in 2013.

Yet even after all of that, there will still be some contaminated sediment buried deep in the river.

"It will cause more harm to the river and to the environment if we went to go after [all of it] because some of the materials are isolated and sequestered and they aren't posing a risk to the river or to humans right now," Jedlicka said.

Jedlicka said Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper's biggest private partner in the process has been Honeywell Inc., the New Jersey-based conglomerate. Honeywell, along with ExxonMobil and PVS Chemicals, were identified last year by New York State as three corporations that were partially responsible for the river's pollution. No formal legal action has been brought against any of the companies.

email: kbargnes@buffnews.com