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After reaching ‘milestone,’ Buffalo River cleanup enters next phase

River Fest Park. Canalside. Buffalo’s Main Lighthouse. Erie Basin Marina.

The last mile or so of the Buffalo River’s 6.2-mile journey snakes past some of the city’s most promising real estate these days, magnifying the impetus for a hastened environmental recovery of this decades-long contaminated waterway.

Details about the next phase of revitalizing and restoring the river – a $44 million shot in the arm designed to cure its toxic ills – were revealed Monday in the Old First Ward Community Center.

The publicly and privately funded effort will be allocated to ridding chemically contaminated sediments left in the river from the city’s industrial heyday. Other aims include improving water quality in the river and promoting fish and wildlife habitats, according to Jill M. Jedlicka, executive director of Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper.

“The river is our future,” Jedlicka said. “It’s defined our history. It’s going to define where we’re going.”

Construction crews have been mobilizing equipment for the last week or so, with plans to begin dredging operations along the “side slope” banks of the riverbed area near the South Park Avenue Bridge on Oct. 7.

This phase of the project will include removing the side slope sediments from the river, which contain more than 100 different industrial contaminants – consisting of mainly lead, mercury, PCBs and other pollutants. About 488,000 cubic yards – about the volume of 153 Olympic-size swimming pools – of contaminated sediment are expected to be removed.

A “clamshell” bucket will load the sediment onto barges. Most of it will be transported and disposed of at a confined disposal facility operated by the Army Corps of Engineers on the shore of Lake Erie about 3 miles south of the mouth of the river. A small amount – an estimated 4,200 cubic yards – of the most contaminated sediment will be removed to a yet-to-be-named hazardous-materials landfill.

By the end of this fall, two large segments upstream are expected to be dredged along with portions of the City Ship Canal.

“This project is now moving,” said John J. Morris, the remediation director for Honeywell Inc., a significant private contributor to the project.

“This is the opportunity to restore a river that is a part of the community and will be part of the community.”

The initial phase of the Buffalo River’s restoration project was undertaken in 2011 and 2012 by the Corps of Engineers. About 550,000 cubic yards of sediment were dredged from the river’s navigation channel over that time. Combined with this dredging and removal effort, more than 1 million cubic yards of toxic sediment will be extracted from the river as part of the cleanup.

“It’s a milestone,” said Mary Beth Giancarlo, a Chicago-based U.S. Environmental Protection Agency scientist who is also an East Aurora native and is assigned to the Buffalo River to provide technical assistance to the project. “It’s a major step.”

About $22 million will be contributed by the EPA to remediate this, one of its 30 designated “areas of concern” on the Great Lakes, and the other $22 million is contributed by private industry.

To date, 15 other Great Lakes sites with legacy waste from industry have been completed as part of the federal government’s Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, including those in Ohio, Indiana and Wisconsin.

“We’re working our way around the Great lakes, and now it’s Buffalo’s turn,” said Marc L. Tuchman of the EPA’s Great Lakes Office.

Dredging work will begin upstream and advance downstream during this next phase of work, officials said.

The final component of this stage of the project is scheduled to occur in 2015, with restoring aquatic habitat to the river and in-water plantings of a variety of vegetative species including wild celery. These plants are expected to assist in returning fish and other aquatic life to the river after the water is rid of the toxic chemical contaminants.