jars of mud may reveal contamination
By John F. Bonfatti
The Buffalo News
Six people spent three hours on a small research vessel
washed by a cold drizzle Wednesday, returning to port with
three plastic tubes filled with Buffalo River bottom.
"All that work for three jars of mud," said one
of the voyagers, Joe Atkinson, director of the Great Lakes
Program at the University at Buffalo.
"Yes, but it's good mud," said Fraser, director
of the Great Lakes Center at Buffalo State College.
Good from a scientific standpoint, since the sediments
collected will provide a wealth of information.
But bad from an environmental health standpoint. The
samples are expected to show that the river bottom remains
significantly contaminated, 16 years after the Buffalo
River was named one of 43 "areas of concern"
along the Great Lakes by the Canadian and American governments.
High concentrations of PCBs, chlordane and heavy metals
remain in much of the Buffalo River sediment.
Samples taken Monday, Wednesday and during a four-day
period last year are the first to be taken in the river
in more than 10 years, Atkinson said.
Among other things, the samples will help determine whether
the pollution has diminished and whether its makeup has
changed, where pollutants are concentrated in the river
bottom, and the condition of the small animals that live
in the mud.
"How serious is (the contamination)?" Fraser
asked. "We'll know a lot more about that after we
do this sampling."
The samples will be frozen and then cut into sections
for detailed study.
"You can decide more precisely how deep you need
to go before there's a problem," Atkinson said. "If
the problem is in the first 12 inches of the bottom, why
take out more?"
The samples are collected using a research vessel, the
Mudpuppy, designed by the federal Environmental Protection
Agency for such activities.
Captain Joe Bonem; his wife, marine technician Polly
Bonem; and EPA scientist Mary Beth Giancarlo Ross brought
the boat here from its base in Bay City, Mich. A winch
lowers 4-inch-diameter tubes into the water. A special
vibrator is used to push the tubes into the compacted
river bottom. Once the desired depth - 4 to 8 feet - is
reached, a valve at the bottom of the tube closes to trap
It's not pleasant work. Polly Bonem and Giancarlo Ross
donned puffy white safety suits, protective boots, visors
and gloves when they handled the material. Blue masking
tape sealed the places where the boots and gloves meet
the safety suit.
"Some of the sediment we had last year . . . had
a definite chemical smell to it," Fraser said.
The boat stopped at three spots, whose exact locations
were plotted by a global positioning system. Two were
just east of the railroad bridge; the other was near the
foot of Katharine Street.
"We chose these areas because they are on a list
of possible areas for habitat rehabilitation," Atkinson
The areas are among several in a study being done by
the Friends of the Buffalo Niagara Rivers, Buffalo State
and Youngstown State University.
"That study is being done in conjunction with a
feasibility study by the Army Corps of Engineers to determine
where the different hot spots are," said Julie O'Neill,
executive director of the Friends.
If the hot spots, or areas that are particularly contaminated,
are cleaned, environmentalists think it could significantly
improve the river's overall health. "We want to have
the best information available when we advocate spending
funds to address these problems," O'Neill said.