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Sean Kirst: How could we allow Niagara's waters to turn black?

The stinking discharge is a prime reminder of why Thomas Kegler, a few years ago, hesitated about painting Niagara Falls. The East Aurora artist was deeply influenced by the Hudson River school of painting, a group of 19th century visionaries who sought the sublime and dramatic in nature.

Kegler went searching for a location that offered similar majesty. The falls were a legendary subject for Frederic Edwin Church, a Hudson River master. But Kegler feared our 21st century Niagara was too diminished by "commercialization" - by the tourism towers and tall hotels at the brink, by remnants of industrial debasement upstream, by too many decisions that put money above beauty.

Colin Dabkowski: Castellani to feature Kegler's Niagara landscapes

Still, he decided to go to Niagara and take a look. He walked from point to point, willing himself to see the falls as they truly are, and he managed to set aside man made distractions beyond the churning water.

"When I went in there and started doing drawings, it was almost like going into a trance," he said. "If you just look at the falls, if that's all you see, you can almost feel the rumble, the power coming up out of the ground, the ions it seems to create in the air, the smell of it, the roar, and for me everything else completely disappeared."

A few days ago, those waters turned a putrid black.

Saturday's black, stinking plume that discolored Niagara's waters. (Image courtesy Niagara Air Inc.)

No incident in recent memory so perfectly captured the basic contradiction of Niagara, the kind of forces that initially discouraged Kegler. Saturday afternoon – in a decision the Niagara Falls Water Board maintains complied with state law – the Niagara treatment plant released a foul-smelling discharge that board officials said involved a residue from backwashing the system.

Sean Kirst: Full glory of Niagara, revealed at dawn

The incident received global attention, including aerial images of the plume turning Niagara black, just past the falls. Social media exploded. Gov. Andrew Cuomo called for an investigation, and the state Department of Environmental Conservation is determining whether the water board had legal authority to make the discharge at that time.

Whatever the outcome, the filthy water brought into harsh relief the two forces that always dueled for Niagara's soul.

Few would argue that the falls are a worldwide symbol of beauty, that to see them at dawn from Goat Island – when the noise of the city is minimal, when the rising sun gives birth to a rainbow that illuminates a spiral of scarlet mist – is to experience a natural gift, a place of global wonder.

That same wonder, for almost 200 years, also has generated ugliness and exploitation. The river served for far too long as an open sewer. The hunger for cashing in on visitors has too often threatened to overwhelm the falls themselves.

Sean Kirst: An Onondaga faithkeeper on respecting the essence of Niagara

And the deadliest threat came from byproducts of the old chemical plants above the falls, which sent poison into the river and the land along its banks.

That debasement quickly gained sad national recognition. As early as 1871, when geologist Ferdinand Vandeveer Hayden urged Congress to turn Yellowstone into a national park, he offered a warning:

Without government protection, he wrote, Yellowstone could end up like Niagara Falls.

Certainly, many Western New Yorkers revere the falls and the gorge for what they are, and they're accelerating their efforts to restore them. So if there is any benefit to what happened Saturday, it is a kind of burning shock that such a discharge could occur at all ….

And a fierce commitment to fully protecting the wonder of Niagara.

Thomas Kegler working on his epic painting of Niagara Falls. (Image courtesy of Thomas Kegler)

Kegler speaks of the extraordinary work done by such groups as the Western New York Land Conservancy, organizations dedicated to nurturing and restoring the wonder of the gorge. He described the discharge as "a portal," a window into a kind of reflexive abdication that historically allowed too much abuse along the river.

"There's an incredible movement in both the art world and the environmental world," he said of a transformation at Niagara.

Using a canvas to capture the essence of the falls, the spiritual power of the river, became his contribution. Over a span of two years, he sketched Niagara from every possible angle, then did his painting and created a documentary on the process.

"My work has a kind of spiritual dimension to it," he said, "the idea of being around something so beautiful, so powerful, you can never really tame it."

The result, "Niagara, Psalms 84:11," is on exhibit at Niagara University's Castellani Art Museum. It wraps in both the American Falls and the great horseshoe, linked by a rainbow arcing from bank to bank, green water gliding away in a lazy, snaking plume.

How is it, in the 21st century, that those waters could run black?

As for Kegler, his painting offers its own subtle response. His vision of the falls references Psalms 84:11, which speaks of the divine as sun and shield, a spiritual point that at Niagara, as civic philosophy, is steeped in common sense:

No good thing is withheld from those who do what's right.

Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Buffalo News. Email him at or read more of his columns in this archive.



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