River shedding its contaminated past By
WASHINGTON - Long one of the nation's notorious toxic waterways,
the Niagara River now appears to be cleaner than it has
been in decades.
Thanks to cleanups
at waste sites along the river, the amount of hazardous
waste leaking into the Niagara has fallen by about 90
percent since 1989, the International Joint Commission
said in a recent status assessment of the river's cleanup.
water in the Niagara is up to 60 percent cleaner, and
young fish in the river are far less contaminated than
they used to be.
Fish from the
Niagara are still too chemical-laden to be eaten safely
on a regular basis, but scientists are amazed at the progress
that has been made under a 1987 plan to reduce toxic contaminants
in the river.
this, the discharges were virtually uncontrolled,"
said Bruce Kirschner, an environmental scientist at the
IJC, a U.S.-Canadian entity that oversees Great Lakes
water quality. "This is a really important environmental
You can see that
story come to life on summer Saturdays in North Tonawanda's
new Gratwick-Riverside Park, which used to be a hazardous
the place to go for kiting," said Charles Burgio,
the city's mayor. While there's still a lot of work to
do to improve the park, "it's getting more popular,"
Burgio said. "Kite clubs use it a lot."
Park opened last year atop a former landfill that had
been leaking hazardous wastes into the nearby river. The
polluters and the state teamed up to build a waste barrier
at the site, allowing the park to be created.
That's one of
16 hazardous waste sites that polluters and the state
and federal governments have either sealed or otherwise
cleaned up near the river in recent years.
The U.S. and
Canadian governments named the Niagara River one of 42
toxic hot spots in the Great Lakes in 1987, and, along
with New York State and the province of Ontario, they
developed a plan to change all that.
The plan was
simple but gargantuan: stop the waste from leaking into
the river or its tributaries from 26 hazardous waste sites
on the American side of the river. Many of those sites
were the poisonous remains of long-gone chemical plants
that ended up on either the state or federal Superfund
went about finding the polluters and forcing them to pay,
and they've largely succeeded. Work has been completed
at 16 of the sites - 12 of them in Niagara County, along
with two in Buffalo and two in the Town of Tonawanda.
The effort has cost $382 million so far, with polluters
paying $336.45 million of it and the governments taking
care of the rest.
While 10 sites
remain to be fixed by next year - at a cost of $249 million
- environmental officials are thrilled at the progress
satisfying to see this accomplished," said John McMahon,
regional water engineer for the state Department of Environmental
Conservation. "I don't want to say that everything's
been done, but this has been a significant effort with
a very positive result."
The effort targeted
18 toxic chemicals that were leaking into the river, such
as PCBs, dioxin and mirex. Some of the sites had been
spewing more than 50 pounds of that waste into the river
Those days are
At most sites,
contractors built elaborate systems intended to keep the
poisons in place. And, according to a recent report by
the DEC and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, those
leaks have been stopped completely at 13 of the 16 sites
where work has been completed.
By the end of
next year, the overall leaks are expected to be down 95
percent from their 1989 levels.
see improvements in the river's water quality resulting
from the plugged leaks. Testing the water for a report
completed last year, state and federal researchers found
reductions of 60 percent or more in the levels of the
river's worst poisons.
won't stop there, either. "This will actually benefit
conditions in Lake Ontario, too," since less poison
is spilling into it now, said Kirschner, of the IJC.
Of course, cleaner
water means healthier fish. Researchers have found that
PCB levels in young fish throughout the Niagara have been
decreasing for years now. Young fish tested in Fort Erie
and the upper Niagara River in 1999 actually had lower
PCB levels than the maximum recommended in the U.S-Canada
Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement.
haven't prompted any change in the state fish advisories,
however. The state warns people to eat no white perch
caught south of Niagara Falls and to eat smallmouth bass
from that area no more than once a month. Carp caught
north of Niagara Falls should be eaten no more than once
And for all other
fish, consumption should be limited to one meal (one-half
pound) per week.
several reasons why those advisories continue despite
the cleaner water in the Niagara.
For one thing,
there's a lag time between environmental work and its
impact on the health of the fish population, said McMahon,
of the DEC.
those leaks were by no means the only environmental concern
in the Niagara.
is, there's still a lot in the sediment" in the bottom
of the Great Lakes and the Niagara, and fish continue
to ingest those chemicals, said John E. Vena, a professor
at the University at Buffalo School of Medicine who has
studied the health impact of eating fish from the lakes.
"It will take years before it clears up."
For that reason
and others, John Jackson, of Great Lakes United, a Buffalo
environmental group, warned against making too much of
the improvements in the Niagara.
At most of the
sites, hazardous wastes weren't removed but were merely
sealed in place. Jackson, the group's former president,
said that means those leaks could spring again someday.
minuscule amounts of hazardous waste still leaking into
the lake are dangerous even in small quantities.
some really important progress," Jackson said. "But
I hope we don't become relaxed about it and say it's all
OK. It isn't."