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An 80 percent cut in Great Lakes cleanup funds proposed last week by House Republicans would seriously undermine the $44 million remediation project for the Buffalo River, said area Democrats who gathered Monday afternoon on the Central Wharf.

“It is not only an environmental concern, it is also economic,” said State Sen. Timothy M. Kennedy. “Our region has many small- and medium-sized employers that – in order to stay in business and add to the quality of life and attractiveness of Buffalo Niagara – rely on a healthy and thriving Lake Erie.”

Kennedy was joined at the news conference by Rep. Brian Higgins, BFLO Harbor Kayak owner Jason Schwinger and placard-bearing environmentalists who urged the public to “Act Now on Climate.”

“In 1968, the Environmental Protection Agency deemed the Buffalo River biologically dead,” said Higgins. “The next year it caught on fire.”

The river remediation project began, and it has so far resulted in the removal of a million cubic yards of contaminated sediment.

“Officials now believe the Buffalo River will be swimmable in five years and the fish caught there suitable for consumption. The next 24 months of waterfront development will change Buffalo for the next 100 years for the better,” Higgins said.

The remarks came on the heels of last week’s proposed reduction – from $285 million to $60 million – in federal funding for Great Lakes restoration by the House Appropriations Committee. Committee Chairman Harold D. Rogers, R-Ky., has called the reduced spending plan for environmental programs a matter of necessity in a difficult budget year.

Higgins, who plans to offer an amendment to restore the funding when the spending plan reaches the House floor, said if climate change is left unchecked, the effects on local ecosystems would be devastating. Higgins also pointed to the consistent increase in lake algae and its adverse effect on the charter fishing trade.

Higgins’ remarks were interrupted briefly by a gray-bearded heckler.

“All the problems with the country today, and you think this is important?” challenged the heckler before being steered away by one an aide. “Sixteen years the planet has not gone up in temperature, and you’re going to talk about climate change.”

A charter bass fisherman also questioned the dismal lake forecast.

“I’m out on the water 110 times a season, and from I what I see the water looks pretty much the same,” said Tim Braun, who runs a bass fishing charter on Lake Erie. “Every year I see a big algae bloom, and every year it goes away. Small mouth bass are bigger now because the water is cleaned up. Every charter captain here is booked.”

In describing the algal bloom that has depleted lake waters of oxygen, Kennedy talked of dead zones encompassing more than a third of the entire lake bottom. He pointed to recent stories in the New York Times that reported a 40 percent reduction in charter angling operations in Lake Erie’s western basin.

Braun, who has operated his business for 10 years and said he has fished Lake Erie for 29 years, disagreed.

“Fishing up here is great,” Braun said, “especially for small mouth and walleye.”

Schwinger, founder of BFLO Harbor Kayak, has operated his kayak rental kiosk at Canalside for five years.

“Having set up shop on the river five years ago, I can say firsthand that the river has changed,” Schwinger said. “The lake has also changed, too. The level of the lake has gone down, and the algae is almost out of control.”

Underscoring the ongoing environmental dialogue is President Obama’s initiative to comprehensively track greenhouse gas emissions.

“Directing the EPA to set power plant carbon pollution standards is a very strong and much needed action that President Obama can take to address the impact of climate change,” Kennedy said. “Stricter emission standards could create more than 200,000 jobs by 2020.”

Later in the afternoon, Higgins was joined by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand at Niagara Transformer Corp. in Cheektowaga, where they announced a new brownfield cleanup bill. The Brownfields Utilization, Investment and Local Development Act would help local municipalities and nonprofit organizations with brownfield rehabilitation.

email: jkwiatkowski@buffnews.com