A million cubic yards of contaminated soil have been dredged from the Buffalo River.
And the dump site from an earlier dredging has been turned into the Times Beach Nature Preserve, with invasive plant species scrubbed from its Lake Erie landscape and native plants restored.
Armed with those successes, the question officials from the federal Environmental Protection Agency and Army Corps of Engineers asked at a public information meeting in the Old First Ward on Tuesday night was, “What next?”
The Buffalo River and Times Beach projects were largely funded through the federal Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, a five-year action plan to clean up and preserve the five Great Lakes – removing toxins, eradicating invasive species, targeting ongoing sources of pollutants, and rebuilding habitat. Originally funded for 2010-2014, the initiative, which coordinates work through 16 federal agencies, has now been extended for another five years.
“For the past 100 years, the Great Lakes have taken a beating,” said Cameron Davis, senior adviser to the EPA administrator, at Tuesday’s meeting. Addressing an audience largely consisting of representatives from local environmental groups and state agencies, he said, “Tell me what the next five years of resuscitating the Great Lakes looks like to you.”
Don Zelazny, Great Lakes programs coordinator of the state Department of Environmental Conservation Region 9, pointed out that the “low-hanging fruit” of clean-up projects has been picked and urged the initiative to get involved in resolving the difficult, expensive and major problem of sewage overflows, in which storm drains and sewer drains run into one another during heavy rainfalls, spilling raw sewage into streams and the lakes.
He also called for more investment in applied research and monitoring, and, along with several others at the meeting, the inclusion of climate change issues into any decisions.
“New York has experienced three hundred-year storms in the last two years, and four hundred-year storms in the past five years,” Zelazny said.
Jill Jedlicka, executive director of Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper, said that among the areas Riverkeeper would like to see included in the next phase were spots along other tributaries, such as Scajaquada Creek and Cayuga Creek.
Other attendees brought up issues of pharmaceutical pollution, compounded by the lack of official collection and disposal sites for unneeded drugs.
Rep. Brian Higgins was on hand to open the program, and he announced the recent release of $22 million in federal funding, matched by another $22 million from Honeywell and Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper, to continue the cleanup and restoration of the Buffalo River.
A longtime advocate for waterfront projects, Higgins noted that Buffalo had struggled for years about what to do with the former industrial areas along its lake and namesake river.
“It took us four decades to figure it out,” Higgins said. “The attraction of the waterfront is the water.”
Anyone interested in submitting comments on the next five-year initiative can do so at the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative website, glri.us/public.html, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.