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WASHINGTON – The federal government’s budget crunch won’t force the Environmental Protection Agency to shut down its massive cleanup of the Buffalo River after all.

The $44 million cleanup effort is designed as a public-private partnership to transform the Buffalo River from an industrial dumping ground to a working waterway where people can swim and fish. Its second phase will commence despite sequestration, the draconian federal budget cuts that took effect March 1, Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, said Wednesday.

A month after internal agency communications indicated bidding would be delayed on this year’s planned efforts, the EPA – which is set to pay for half of the next phase of the project – informed Higgins via letter and email that the agency had reversed course.

“EPA has authorized approximately $22 million for the next stage of work in the Buffalo River,” Denise Gawlinski Fortin, congressional liaison at the agency’s Great Lakes National Program Office in Chicago, told Higgins via email. “This does not include matching funds from the nonfederal sponsor. We will evaluate the next steps when that work is completed.”

The next phase of the project involves removing approximately 450,000 yards of contaminated sediment, capping contaminated sediment on eight to 10 acres of land and creating a 10-acre wildlife habitat along the riverbank.

The work should begin this fall, Susan Hedman, Great Lakes National Program manager for the EPA, told Higgins in a letter.

Higgins had pressed the EPA to reverse its March decision to put the project on hold, and he said he was thrilled the agency had done just that.

“This commitment of federal funding provides the green light to a project that has both ecological and economic consequences that will benefit Western New York for generations to come,” said Higgins. “We appreciate the EPA’s recognition of its importance and applaud the efforts of those supporting the rebirth of the Buffalo River locally.”

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the state Department of Environmental Conservation, Honeywell Corp. and Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper are partners with the EPA on the project.

“The remediation utilizes each partner’s knowledge, resources and expertise, and could be a catalyst for economic development as well as expanded recreational opportunities,” said Jay Kelly, Honeywell Buffalo Research Lab leader. “We appreciate Congressman Higgins’ leadership in ensuring that critical federal funds are secure.”

The first phase of the project, a massive Army Corps of Engineers dredging effort, began in August of 2011.

The second phase will involve more dredging along a 6.2-mile stretch of the Buffalo River shoreline, as well as a 1.4-mile area in the City Ship Canal.

The plans to move forward on the project came as good news to Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper, which has been pressing for the cleanup for years.

“Riverkeeper commends the U.S. EPA for authorizing the project to move forward,” said Jill Jedlicka, the organization’s executive director. “We thank Congressman Higgins and our restoration partners for their unwavering commitment to the Buffalo River, and are hopeful that this decision will allow our team to commence dredging this year.”

email: jzremski@buffnews.com