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Huge project to restore Buffalo River will enhance waterfront development

Here’s a government program everyone can support. Because of a $44 million project by the Environmental Protection Agency, the Buffalo River could be safe for swimming in five years. Another five years after that and fish caught there could be safely eaten.

The coming improvements in Buffalo’s long-polluted river are nothing short of breathtaking and, in that, they are of a piece with the city’s ongoing economic revival. So much is happening at once here, it’s challenging to keep track of it all.

The project was announced three years ago, funded by the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, which is also helping to clean Lakes Erie and Ontario. Today the project is well along. Dredging began last fall, and with 275,000 cubic yards of sludge already removed – enough to fill 50 Olympic-sized swimming pools – the job is about 58 percent complete.

The stuff coming out of the river is seriously toxic, and even worse is yet to be scooped out. In addition to cars, shopping carts and bowling balls, out of this poor, abused waterway have come PCBs, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, lead and mercury, much of it the 20th century discharge of factories that once formed the backbone of the region’s economy.

Before it concludes at year’s end, the task will turn to an especially polluted stretch of river, along its north bank on a bend just east of the South Park bridge. The sludge there is so severely contaminated that it will have to be handled differently from the rest, mixed with a concrete-type mixture and landfilled, likely at Lewiston’s CWM hazardous waste landfill. That work, delayed for permitting and other reasons, is expected to begin in October.

It is a huge undertaking, made possible by funding that flowed from President Obama’s commitment to clean the Great Lakes and, at least as important, from a growing public belief that Americans must be better stewards of their environment than they were in decades and even centuries past. That means repairing the problems caused by yesterday’s mistakes, but, of necessity, also means stanching the ongoing flow of pollutants into the river.

In particular, it will require making improvements to the sewer system that sends millions of gallons of overflow waste into the river every year. That work is under way, but is scheduled to take 20 years – meaning millions more gallons of sewage will be dumped into the river.

This is a remarkable, indeed a historic, period for Buffalo. After decades of decline and years of broken promises and false starts, the city’s cylinders are firing. It’s nothing short of thrilling.

Some of this has happened because of local choices, in particular the decision to abandon the silver-bullet approach for the inner harbor in favor of the “lighter, quicker, cheaper” formula that has helped to make the area a destination for tens of thousands of residents and visitors. And much of it is due to the helping hand of government.

The waterfront has exploded in large part because of money secured by Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, during the relicensing of the Niagara Power Project. And Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s “Buffalo Billion” has set off an incredible series of economic jolts that promise great things for the city – including a massive high-tech development along the Buffalo River.

And there is more, at the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, east of downtown at Larkinville, even along Niagara Street, where the new and well-named Resurgence Brewing Co. is helping to re-imagine one of the city’s long-neglected thoroughfares.

It’s important to keep this momentum going, because it’s hard to recapture once it diminishes. To that end, the region’s political and environmental leadership should commit to speeding up plans to deal with the sewer overflow problems that still bedevil the little river that is finally seeing a new day.