Spring Cleaning?

It has been almost a year since we talked about the Areas of Concern that dot our Great Lakes with toxic sediments. It’s been half-a-year since the US House approved triple funding for the Great Lakes Legacy Act the federal program that helps states and localities clean up these dangerous pollutants. And it has been about the same amount of time since one Senator from Oklahoma shot down the increased funding and put us right back where we started. But the US House has just passed another water bill that would triple the authorization for this clean up program and the US Senate is expected to consider the bill this spring.

Twenty-six sites in New York State are responsible for more than 99 percent of the toxic chemical pollution on the US side of the Great Lakes basin. Ugh. The Buffalo and Niagara Rivers that flow through Buffalo, New York and into Lake Ontario and Erie have an amazing inventory of chemicals and dangerous pollutants.

Buffalo was a magnet for industry at the turn of the last century – it had hydropower, a significant rail network and the Erie Canal – industry and then chemical companies moved in and began using up and abusing the fresh water. Years later, after these companies fled or closed shop, they left behind a destructive, toxic legacy in the same formerly pristine waters that flow through Buffalo and into Lakes Erie and Ontario.

“What was left behind was a skeleton of the industrial and chemical revolution,” said Jill Spisiak Jedlicka of the Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper. A skeleton buried in the rivers’ sediments and underneath the fractured bedrock that the city sits upon where toxins find their way through numerous fissures into the Niagara River and the Lakes.

There are two major Areas of Concern in the Queen City – several miles of the Buffalo River and another 37 miles of toxic muck in the Niagara River – totaling a 1400 square mile geographic range.
Buff River at Erie Harbor

The bed beneath the Buffalo River is contaminated with hazardous waste, PCBs, chlordane, PAH’s and plenty of raw sewage – there are 45 inactive hazardous waste sites within this one AOC.

The Niagara River has its own problems – as late as the 1980s cities and industrial facilities were allowed to discharge their waste into the river. This AOC has inactive hazardous waste sites, contaminated sediment, combined sewer overflows, urban and rural run off and regular old-fashion pollution.

But the Buffalo Niagara River Keeper has successfully negotiated Great Lakes Legacy Act funding for the Buffalo River and are responsible for the river’s Remedial Action Plan. After years of research and planning, efforts to clean up the sediments that lie at the bottom of the river will be underway by the end of this year. There will literally be shovels in the dirt because of the work of countless people and with the help of federal funding from the GLLA.

“It didn’t happen overnight and that is the hardest sell with Congress,” said Spisiak Jedlicka, “Especially with those congressmen from outside the Great Lakes region, they want to see it happen right away. These problems are so complex and the solutions don’t come overnight.”

So far, the GLLA has required localities to find funding to match the federal government – a 65/35 split. This worked out for the Buffalo River project because Albany came to the table with an open purse. But this match has been a real problem for other AOC’s especially those known as “orphans” because the polluters are no longer in business and/or have left the area – there is no one to hold responsible. One way to deal with this, according to Spisiak Jedlicka would be to allow the EPA to take mitigating circumstances into account. “The EPA should have the ability to negotiate the matching numbers based on the individual situation,” she suggests.

Under the House water bill the matching funds are addressed. There are also funds for habitat restoration that did not exist in the previous GLLA authorizations. Spisiak Jedlicka says that habitat restoration plays a big role in successful remediation of a toxic site because it is the ingredient that brings the fish back to edible and helps the waters stay clean for drinking and swimming.

But none of this will matter if the US Senate doesn’t see how important this program is to the future of our nation’s largest source of surface fresh water when it considers the $19.4 billion Water Quality Investment Act of 2009 (HR 1262). Last year when Congress debated reauthorizing the GLLA, Spisiak Jedlicka said the riverkeeper’s work was affected, “knowing we were next in the queue to start remediation we sped up our schedule [on the Buffalo River] because we were so concerned that the legacy act would not be reauthorized. Now, knowing there is a larger authorization [$150 million a year in the House water bill] on the table allows us to evaluate things more thoroughly and take those extra few months to make the correct decisions when it comes to remediation of the 37 miles of the Niagara River that we have to clean up too.”

It has been nearly 20 years since Congress passed a Water authorization bill. That is too long to neglect toxic hot spots, aging sewage systems and crumbling wastewater facilities. The House water bill triples funding for the Great Lakes Legacy Act to $150 million a year, addresses some of the concerns over matching funds and allows some of the money to go toward habitat restoration. This funding is nothing short of crucial to our region and for the restoration of the Great Lakes but it is in a very vulnerable position in the US Senate.

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