Department of Environmental Conservation

D E C banner

Buffalo River Restoration Project

logos of EPA, DEC and Army Corps of Engineersseal of the City of Buffalobuffalo niagara waterkeeper logohoneywell logo

View the Habitat Restoration/Dredging Updates webpage.

Major Construction Efforts Complete!

vegetation loading
Loading vegetation for planting to restore the river bottom.

Buffalo residents and tourists now have a cleaner, deeper river to enjoy! Approximately one million cubic yards of contaminated sediment, enough to fill a football field 40 stories high, were dredged from the river. The river bottom's habitat also got a boost with the installation of clean sand, plants, and fish structure. The transformation has helped the river become a beneficial environmental, economic, and community resource.

Prior to the cleanup, the river faced many environmental challenges. These included poor water quality, degraded fish and wildlife habitat, and sediment contaminated with PCBs, PAHs, lead, and mercury. A unique public/private/non-profit partnership formed in response, known as the Buffalo River Restoration Partnership. It brought diverse resources and expertise together to develop and carry out plans for a comprehensive cleanup of the river. Partners include U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA), U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), City of Buffalo, Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper® and Honeywell.

The Partnership is now focused on monitoring sediment deposition rates and surface sediment chemistry to determine if remedial goals are being met. The first round of sampling was conducted two years post-dredge in 2017 and additional monitoring is planned for five years post-dredge in 2020. Vegetation and habitat structures are being monitored on an annual basis to comply with permit requirements. Biological monitoring is being performed at two-years and five-years post-dredge to collect data needed for delisting the Buffalo River Area of Concern (AOC).

The Sediment Cleanup

Over the years, extensive sampling and evaluations determined that somewhere between 700,000 - 1,000,000 cubic yards (cy) of sediment contained legacy contamination within the Buffalo River. This contamination and extensive habitat degradation earned the river a designation as one of 43 Great Lakes AOCs in the 1980s, prompting the community to form a Remedial Action Committee and seek ways to clean up and restore the river with the ultimate goal to "delist" the AOC. See a map of the Buffalo River AOC (PDF, 550 KB).

The cleanup fell within the lower six miles of the Buffalo River and the 1.4-mile City Ship Canal. Sediment remediation in the AOC was split into phases with different partners taking the lead and with different funding sources. See a cross section (PDF, 92 KB) that shows the boundary of the two phases. With Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI) funding secured for Phase 1 navigation channel sediments, the Great Lakes Legacy Act (GLLA) Phase 2 project targeted sediment along the side slopes. The GLLA project also dredged sediment in the navigation channel below the authorized navigation depth dredged by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. A mass removal of sediment ensured that future routine navigational dredging would not expose the environment to contamination. The GLLA project included capping and aquatic habitat restoration components as well.

The sediment removed from Phase 1 navigational dredging and Phase 2 environmental dredging totaled 1,003,000 cubic yards.

This project follows the USACE's 2011-2012 navigation dredging (shown above), which removed 550,000 cubic yards of contaminated sediment from the middle of the river.
USACE's 2011-2012 navigation dredging, which removed 550,000 cy of
contaminated sediment from the middle of the river. Photo by USACE
Sediment removed during dredging
Phase Sediment Volume
Phase 1 (2011-2012) 550,000 cy
Phase 2 (2013-2015) 453,000 cy
TOTAL 1,003,000 cy

Navigational Dredging (Phase 1)

In 2011, the USACE received over $4.5M of GLRI funds. Combining that with their own base funding, they were able to dredge out the backlog of contaminated sediment in the federal navigation channel and meet the objectives of a cleaner and more navigable river. Mechanical dredging occurred in the Buffalo River and City Ship Canal from 2011 to 2012 and resulted in the removal of approximately 550,000 cy of sediment from the navigation channel. See U.S. Army Corps of Engineers GLRI Dredging Maps.

buffalo river dredging
Environmental dredging in the upper Buffalo River in 2014.
Photo by Brian Murphy

Environmental Dredging (Phase 2)

In 2012, Honeywell voluntarily signed a cost sharing agreement with EPA under the GLLA program. The Project Agreement has since been amended to increase the ceiling to $48.5 million with EPA and Honeywell splitting the total project costs 50/50. While the other entities in the Partnership did not contribute financially to the GLLA remediation and restoration project, they contributed in other ways. See a list of the GLLA partners (PDF, 42 KB).

Best management practices, such as environmental dredging buckets and silt curtains, reduced suspended solids and residual contamination. Dredged sediment was placed directly into scows (large vessel used for containing and transporting material) and barged to a confined disposal facility, or CDF. The CDF is maintained by the USACE and was designed specifically to contain sediment from the Buffalo River. A small volume of sediment with PCB concentrations that exceeded hazardous waste criteria were regulated under the Toxics Substances Control Act (TSCA) and were handled separately. This material was disposed at appropriately licensed landfills. Water quality (i.e., turbidity) was measured continuously and air monitoring was employed during the TSCA dredging and handling.

Telestacker operating on the Buffalo River.

Capping (Phase 2)

Based on site conditions and low water flow, capping was an ideal remedy for a section of the City Ship Canal. Modeling determined that one single layer of clean material at a thickness of 5.5 feet would be effective at isolating the chemical contamination in the sediment. Approximately 65,000 cy of capping material was placed at the end of the City Ship Canal and provided the basis for the largest aquatic habitat restoration area of the project. See the dredging maps at the Habitation Restoration/Dredging Updates webpage for the locations of the capped areas.

The conveyor belt methodology was employed for spreading the capping material out at the end of the City Ship Canal. Material was continuously barged from the staging area down to the telestacker unit and was manually placed in a series of 12-inch lifts. Long-reach excavators were also used to spread out material in some difficult to access areas and add more fill in other areas.

Habitat Restoration (Phase 2)

vegetation planting
Planting emergent vegetation in the City Ship Canal.

This figure (2 page PDF, 1.4 MB) shows the location of the five aquatic habitat restoration areas. These areas were selected by the AOC Remedial Action Committee and the local community. They are considered to be their highest priority projects to help remove the AOC from the list of Great Lakes places with a degraded environment.

The restoration included placement of in-water structures and vegetation designed to improve habitat for fish and other aquatic wildlife across more than 305,000 square feet (approximately seven acres) of the five habitat areas.

  • Habitat substrate material (sand mixed with a small amount of gravel, ideal for plant growth and material stability) was placed at all five habitat areas.
  • 61 anchored rootwad logs and log poles were installed at four of five habitat areas to create fish habitat and sheltered planting areas.
  • 12 porcupine cribs (large, pyramid-shaped wooden structures) were placed in the City Ship Canal for fish shelter - three cribs in each of four locations.
  • 18 rock vanes were installed at three of the five habitat areas to reduce erosion and encourage sedimentation for plant beds.
  • Rip-rap was placed at the stormwater outfall areas within the restoration areas to reduce erosion.
  • Four gravel spawning beds were created in the City Ship Canal using stone sized to encourage target fish species.
  • Approximately 77,000 emergent and submerged plants were installed.
porcupine crib
Porcupine crib used for fish habitat. Photo by Brian Murphy.

Community Benefits

Navigation and access have improved with the removal of contaminated sediment from the river bottom. A cleaner river also helps reduce the stigma of pollution, leading to increased opportunities for recreation, tourism, and redevelopment along the waterfront.

Habitat enhancements have improved fish and wildlife habitat, providing better food and shelter for native species. Levels of contamination in fish populations will decrease over time, but it may take years before fish advisories (leaves DEC website) in the Buffalo River are less restrictive.

Where to Find More Information

Buffalo River Sediment Cleanup and Habitat Restoration

installing rootwads
Installing rootwads for fish habitat and sheltered planting areas.
Photo by Brian Murphy

Additional Information

Receive Site Fact Sheets by Email

Have site information sent right to your email inbox. Sign up to receive contaminated sites emails by county for information about this site and other sites in the state's remedial programs. When you reach the topics page, scroll down to the "Environmental Site Permitting and Cleanup Information by County" section, and choose the counties of interest.

You will periodically receive site-related information/announcements for all contaminated sites in the county(ies) you select.

Whom to Contact

Katherine Winkler
Program Manager
Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper
721 Main Street
Buffalo, NY 14203
716-852-7483 x15

Stephany Antonov
Great Lakes Program
700 Delaware Avenue
Buffalo, NY 14209

Jennifer Dunn (Habitat)
Division of Water
700 Delaware Avenue
Buffalo, NY 14203

Mary Beth Giancarlo
Project Manager
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
Great Lakes National Program Office
77 W. Jackson Blvd.
Chicago, IL 60604

Victoria Streitfeld
Industry Contact
Director of Communications