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Great Lakes Article:

3 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 the mud.

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 said.

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.

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