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Niagara River shedding its contaminated past By JERRY ZREMSKI
News Washington Bureau

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.

Meanwhile, the 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.

"Before 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 success story."

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 waste site.

"It's becoming 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."

Gratwick-Riverside 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 cleanup list.

Government officials 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 to date.

"It's very 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 every day.

Those days are over now.

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.

Scientists already 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.

The improvements 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.

Those improvements 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 a month.

And for all other fish, consumption should be limited to one meal (one-half pound) per week.

Experts cite 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.

For another, those leaks were by no means the only environmental concern in the Niagara.

"The problem 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.

Besides, the minuscule amounts of hazardous waste still leaking into the lake are dangerous even in small quantities.

"We've made 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."

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