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Since last fall, a crew dredging a six-mile stretch of the Buffalo River has removed enough sludge laden with PCBs, lead, mercury and other pollutants to fill 50 Olympic-sized swimming pools.

The Cadillac they pulled from the river? Call it a bonus.

So were the Ford Ranger, the Chevrolet S-10 pickup truck and the shopping carts and bowling balls.

“We found someone’s dumping ground,” said Mary Beth Giancarlo, an environmental scientist for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Actually, the Buffalo River was everyone’s – industries’ and individuals’ – dumping ground for most of the last century.

But when finished at year’s end, the $44 million cleanup of the waterway will allow residents to use the Buffalo River in ways no one thought imaginable.

“This is the less-noticed part of the Buffalo waterfront transformation and renaissance,” said Rep. Brian Higgins. “For the first time in our history, it’s believable now because people see it.”

From his spot on Canalside, Justin Dahl has watched the river’s comeback.

“It was a ghost town,” said Dahl, general manager at Buffalo Harbor Kayak, which opened eight years ago. “The past three years, everything is just booming down here.”

At 21, Michaela Zawistowski of the Old First Ward is too young to remember the industrial heyday of the Buffalo River. But having grown up nearby, she remembers what was left behind and what the river looked like not too long ago.

“There’s so much more to do now,” said Zawistowski, who with her brother and a friend launched a kayak this week from the new Mutual Riverfront Park near the foot of Hamburg Street. “I think it’s cool to see the number of people who come out here now.”

The dredging is one of three components to the Buffalo River restoration project. Also included are shoreline improvements and habitat restoration – such as the $3 million shoreline restoration Buffalo Riverkeeper is undertaking at the RiverBend site off South Park Avenue in South Buffalo.

In five years, the river may be swimmable. A decade from now, fish from the waters could be safely eaten.

“It’s no longer the old industrial waterway that it once was,” said Higgins, D-Buffalo, who long before his days in Congress was in 1987 one of the founding members of the organization Friends of the Buffalo River, which evolved into Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper.

By the time this year is over, the worst contamination from the riverbed will be gone.

Buckets of sludge

But in the meantime, there’s more dredging to be done.

As of Monday, the dredging project was roughly 58 percent complete, Giancarlo said.

Some 275,000 cubic yards of contaminated sludge have been dredged and removed from the river. About 185,000 cubic yards remain to be pulled up, she said.

A bright yellow crane dips a big bucket into murky river water, over and over, around the clock.

The dredging continues this week off a river bank near the foot of Katherine Street and across from the long-vacant Cargill grain elevator.

The work has been divided into about four dozen locations along the river, roughly between Bailey Avenue and the inner harbor.

Lowered into the river, the dredge bucket scoops up blackish-gray toxic sludge from the riverbed and deposits it onto a barge. After several hours, the barge ferries the debris to a federally managed site on the outer harbor near the former Bethlehem Steel site.

“The stuff that we’re removing is the filthy, black, oily stuff,” said Giancarlo, the EPA scientist who serves as a co-director for the Buffalo River project.

That sediment includes harmful PCBs, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, lead and mercury.

“We are dredging to what we consider ‘native materials,’ ” Giancarlo said, generally a layer of hard clay substance.

EPA tests revealed that layer of the riverbed met long-term cleanup standards for the waterway, she said.

The dredged materials are taken to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ confined disposal facility, where they are sorted, and wood and metal are removed for recycling.

The toxic sludge that remains is deposited behind an engineered dike reinforced with steel sheeting with armor stone and a sand filter, said Matthew Burkett, project manager for the Army Corps of Engineers, the agency overseeing the project for the EPA.

“Anything that leaves the CDF is water,” Burkett said. “And that water meets water quality standards.”

A crew worked at 15 spots along the river between last October and December. The around-the-clock effort began again June 16 with a pair of dredging operations just west of Red Jacket Riverfront Park and near the Buffalo Color Peninsula.

Too toxic

An area on the north bank of the river on a bend just east of the South Park bridge is so contaminated that the dredged sediment won’t be taken to the outer harbor’s confined bay.

The sludge there, in some cases, far exceeds the 50 parts per million federal threshold for pollutants to be disposed of like the rest of the sediment.

While most samples there recorded results below the threshold, more than a dozen tested above that threshold – many above 200 parts per million, and one sample testing at a project-high of 1,200 parts per million, for PCB contamination.

Off-loading and processing of this sediment was scheduled to begin Aug. 11.

However, permits, contracts and other details have yet to be finalized. So the dredging will probably begin in October, Giancarlo said.

Roughly 4,200 cubic yards of sediment will be dredged from the “hot spot” and then be slurried with a concrete-type mixture and landfilled – possibly at Lewiston’s CWM hazardous waste landfill.

“It’s most likely going to go there,” Giancarlo said. “It’s the closest.”

Ship Canal phase

A high-profile aspect of the project will be at the Buffalo Ship Canal.

A 1.1-mile spur from the main branch of the Buffalo River runs along Ganson and Ohio streets. Giancarlo said work on the canal is expected to be underway in a few weeks.

Later this fall, about seven acres of the canal bottom will be covered with thick sand to cap high levels of contamination.

The sand, up to 5ø feet thick, will render about 1,800 feet of the canal shallow but will not top the water’s surface.

Next year, plans call for five aquatic habitat restoration areas to be constructed at the site.

A small section of the canal will be filled with sand and capped with stone, because experts found the integrity of the bank could be compromised by dredging.

Other problems

While toxic chemicals are being removed from the riverbed every day, the Buffalo River won’t be fully cleaned until sewer system improvements cut off the overflows of millions of gallons of waste every year.

Although it’s not part of the scope of the EPA project, it’s the next big piece in the puzzle.

“Cleaning up the contaminated sediment and restoring habitat are only part of the comprehensive river restoration,” said Jill Jedlicka, executive director of Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper.

A nearly $12 million recent upgrade now better controls bacteria and catches “floatables” that, during heavy rains, find their way from a combined sewer system to the “Hamburg Drain” – near where Zawistowski and her friends launched their kayaks.

It’s not fail-safe, though, according to Dahl and other kayakers in the area.

“The things you see the most are the things you drop down the toilet – tampons, condoms,” Dahl said.

Those types of items, unless trapped, eventually find their way down the river past the burgeoning Commercial Slip at Canalside.

Similar improvements at Smith Street are earmarked for next year. And a recent agreement between the EPA and Buffalo Sewer Authority aimed at gradually correcting combined sewage overflows over the next two decades should further aid river cleanup.

Jedlicka said even with the Buffalo Sewer Authority’s long-term, 20-year plan, Riverkeeper continues seeking ways to expedite improvements in and along the Buffalo River.

The Buffalo River Restoration Partnership, which includes Riverkeeper, Honeywell International and local, state and federal governmental agencies, is a public-private investment designed to revitalize the waterway under the EPA’s Great Lakes Legacy Act.

Ultimately, a cleaner Buffalo River is in everyone’s interest, she said. That’s why there’s so much enthusiasm.

“Bringing this river back from the dead is a statement to the grit and spirit of our community,” Jedlicka said.

email: tpignataro@buffnews.com