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Frequently Asked Questions about Restoring the Buffalo River

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The following questions are frequently asked about the upcoming dredging and restoration work being planned for the Buffalo River. Additional questions and answers will be posted as the project proceeds. If you have questions that you would like answered, please e-mail them to us using the "send us an email" link at the bottom of the right column. A printable version may be found by accessing the link "FAQs Brochure" near the top of the right column.

Historic photo of Buffalo River. shows factories on both sides of the river
Historic photo of the Buffalo River. The former
Republic Steel plant is to the left of the river and
the former Buffalo Color plant is to the right.
Oil sheen visible in the photo indicates petroleum
impacts. Most of the contamination is now
bound to river sediments.

Who is working on the cleanup?
The Buffalo River Restoration Partnership (BRRP), also known as the Great Lakes Legacy Act Project Coordination Team, is working on the cleanup of the contaminated sediment in the Buffalo River. The partnership includes the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) Great Lakes National Program Office, the USEPA Region 2, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), Honeywell, Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper, DEC, the City of Buffalo, and Erie County.

BRRP is a public-private collaborative effort to clean up sediment in the Buffalo River. Although discharges of toxic chemicals to the Great Lakes have greatly decreased in the past 30 years, contamination remains in Buffalo River. The river bottom is contaminated with polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), and metals. BRRP includes the USEPA Great Lakes National Program Office, USEPA Region 2, USACE, DEC, Erie County, the City of Buffalo, Honeywell, and Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper. This cleanup is part of a larger strategy to keep contaminants out of not only Buffalo River, but also the Lake Erie food chain.


What is the timeframe of the cleanup?
The dredging of the river is planned to occur in two phases. Phase I dredging is fully funded and began in August 2011 and will continue through November 2011. USACE is taking the lead on the dredging of the federal navigation channel (or center of the river) in 2011, which is being funded by the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI). Phase II of the project is under remedial design, with a proposed start date in 2012. Phase II is the cleanup of contaminated sediments outside of the navigational channel, including side slopes. Phase II dredging will be lead by the USEPA Great Lakes National Program Office under the Great Lakes Legacy Act (GLLA) and take approximately two years (through 2013), which will include habitat restoration.


Who is paying for the cleanup?
Because of the "legacy" of North America's industrialization, large amounts of contamination persist in the sediment. To help accelerate the recovery of the sediment, the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative1 funds cleanup activities. The GLRI is administered and distributed through USEPA's Great Lakes National Program Office. Phase I of the project is funded through a combination of USACE operations and maintenance funds and through the GLRI.

Regarding Phase II, USEPA takes a partnership approach under the Great Lakes Legacy Act2, in a cost-share agreement with non-federal sponsors (state, local, non-profit or industry) to fund cleanup activities. Honeywell and the Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper are the non-federal sponsors to date and have been active partners in the Remedial Investigation/Feasibility Study and Remedial Design process for the last three years. Engagement from a variety of river industries and private corporations is being active sought.

Over the past three years, the USEPA, USACE, DEC, Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper, and Honeywell have been collaborating on strategies for cleaning up and restoring the Buffalo River using the GLLA. This "restoration partnership" has improved cost-effectiveness and efficiency by facilitating a cooperative process among traditionally conflicting interests. DEC, Riverkeeper and Honeywell each have provided significant resources to the project to leverage the federal government's GLLA funding.

Is the funding for all phases of dredging secure?
Phase I of the dredging is taking place and fully funded. Funding for the Remedial Design of Phase II is secure. Pending final design an application to GLLA is expected in late 2011.

How much has been spent on the studies and will this project actually be implemented?
To date more than $6 million has been spent on the Remedial Investigation/Feasibility Study and Remedial Design. There are no guarantees that Phase II dredging will be implemented, however BRRP is committed to the restoration of the Buffalo River. Significant personnel time and resources have been dedicated to the effort for more than seven years.

Dredging Operation

What are the major contaminants of concern?
Most of the chemical contamination in the Buffalo River is bound to sediments. The river's sediments contain elevated levels of metals, PCBs, PAHs, and numerous other chemicals.

A river's history is reflected in its sediment. For the industries along the Buffalo River, the river was not only a transportation link between suppliers and markets, it was also a source of necessary fresh water as well as a receiver of industrial waste by-products. Portions of the Buffalo River sediment have been contaminated by these industrial discharges, as well as municipal and agricultural discharges, and waste disposal. The extent of sediment contamination has been the subject of intense sampling, analysis and evaluation for many years by various agencies including Erie County, DEC, USEPA, and USACE.

The Project Coordination Team (PCT) conducted a chemical indicator analysis based on risk assessments and determined that the overall list of indicator chemicals of potential risks to human and ecological receptors are: arsenic, copper, lead, mercury, total PCBs, benzo(a)pyrene, benzo(a)anthracene, and gamma chlordane. The PCT, through further rigorous statistical analysis, determined that total PAHs, lead, mercury, and total PCBs were present in the river with all the other indicator chemicals. Therefore, if remedial activities were targeted at these four chemicals of concern, then all the other contaminants should be addressed simultaneously.

Why are you digging up contamination that is buried? Why not leave it there?
The Buffalo River has been naturally recovering over the last few decades. However, the river bottom is still contaminated and poses risks to people, fish and wildlife that might be exposed to contaminated sediments. The river continues to be disturbed periodically through both natural processes and human activity. These processes and activities will continue to re-suspend contamination for the foreseeable future and prevent the river from recovering further. In order to improve the long-term quality of the river ecosystem and increase protection to public health, the contaminated sediments should be remediated.

Disturbing the sediments can result in resuspension and exposure. For example, routine maintenance of the federal navigation channel in the Buffalo River is required by Congress on a biennial basis. Future operations and maintenance dredging will continue to disturb the sediments and increase the occurrence of resuspended contaminants in the water for the foreseeable future.

Furthermore, contaminated sediments that remain on the floor continue to impact the river environment. Benthic organisms, the foundation of the food web, reside in and on top of the sediment. Recent risk assessments conclude that contaminants found in these organisms are likely to cause an adverse impact to the entire food chain, up to and including humans who ingest locally-caught fish. Remediating contaminated sediments will restore the best possible environment for these organisms.

How does this project compare with past dredging projects by USACE?
Past USACE dredging projects in Buffalo Harbor were generally at a smaller-scale (approximately 100,000 cubic yards biannually that would typically require only a few weeks to complete). Phase I dredging is removing a substantially larger volume of sediment (approximately 600,000 cubic yards) and require a longer time to complete than past dredging projects (a 24/7 dredging operation from late August 2011 through November 2011). In addition, this project is a collaboration among partners of BRRP and includes a second phase (approximately 600,000 cubic yards), which will be administered by the USEPA. The total project cleanup will remove approximately 1,200,000 cubic yards. The standard dump truck volume is about 10 cubic yards, which means the total volume of sediment removed in this project would fill approximately 120,000 dump trucks.

Is dredging planned for the City Ship Canal on the side slopes and how will this affect the marina operations?
BRRP is in close contact with various shoreline property owners including the operators of the marinas. We are working with the owners on the dredging schedule to minimize impact on the slip owners' usage of the river. Due to the magnitude of sediment to be removed, we cannot guarantee whether there will be restrictions or impacts on the access to slips at certain times of the year.

Will dredging be impacted by large amounts of junk (such as cars) in the river? What about the Buffalo Police Department diving at the head of Smith Street?
Urban rivers often contain large amounts of debris and experienced dredging contractors are accustomed to dealing with this. The dredges and supporting equipment used is sufficient for clearing large debris and properly disposing of it. BRRP will continue to communicate and coordinate with police as we move through remedial design and construction.

Dredging Impact on Community

Will dredging impact recreation on the river?
River users are encouraged to maintain ongoing communication with BRRP so both sides can be informed as to activities planned or scheduled on or along the river for 2011, 2012, and 2013. We will try our best to accommodate activities on the river if it is in our means. BRRP is working to set up real-time public information so river users know when and where the dredge operations will be taking place during the life of the project. River users with questions or concerns regarding scheduled dredging activities are encouraged to contact BRRP at (716) 852-7483 ext. 21 (Jill Jedlicka's line from Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper) and consult applicable notices to mariners. For questions specific to Phase I, river users may contact USACE at (716) 879-4410.

Will dredging impact fish populations? Will the Buffalo River be restocked?
Although we expect fish populations to be negatively impacted initially, a major component of this river restoration effort is to restore habitat after the dredging operations. This will result in a long term net benefit to fish health and populations. Stocking efforts for walleye have been attempted in the past, but due to poor habitat conditions, there was significant mortality and the stocking effort failed. Future stocking may be considered, once habitat has been re-established and is supportive of the variety of fish species.

The short-term impacts of dredging include temporary re-suspension and re-deposition of sediments and associated pollutants, including petroleum-based compounds. These materials can have potentially adverse impacts upon sensitive life stages of fish, such as eggs, larvae and very young fishes, during the spawning period. Most of the fishes in the Buffalo River spawn during the spring and early summer period, therefore dredging activity is suspended during this time to protect fish reproduction from potentially disruptive environmental conditions. This spring/early summer work prohibition period also provides protection for approximately 50,000 young steelhead and domestic rainbow trout stocked by DEC each spring in the Buffalo River drainage, including about 10,000 steelhead that are held in pens at a local sportsmen's club on the Lower Buffalo River.

Will drinking water be affected by dredging?
A USACE 2010 Environmental Assessment for Phase I indicates that no adverse impact from the project on water and sewer facilities is anticipated, and the dredging should not have any adverse impact on drinking water. The evaluation of the Phase I sediment was included in the Finding of No Significant Impact and Environmental Assessment for the Buffalo Harbor. The evaluation of the Phase II sediment will be included in the USACE Environmental Assessment. For more information about the Assessments, please visit the link provided to the USACE in the upper right hand column of this page.

The City of Buffalo is constantly monitoring intakes to ensure high quality drinking water. Multiple controls are in place to ensure protection of drinking water throughout phases I and II. Although dredging causes a short-term disruption of sediment in the river, this project will use four primary methods to limit this occurrence. First, the dredging will occur at a slow, controlled pace. Second, a closed clamshell bucket will be used to dig the sediment; compared to other buckets, it has a smoother, tighter close. Third, barges will be prohibited from overflowing excess water into the river. Finally, dredging will not occur during exceedingly high river flow events. More information regarding the Erie County Water Authority drinking water collection, treatment, and testing may be found by clicking on the "Erie County Water Authority" link in the upper right hand column of this page.

Will surface water be affected by dredging?
Although there will be temporary resuspension of sediment at the dredging site, analyses by the Corps indicates degradation is not expected in the quality of the surface water. The USACE conducted modeling to evaluate the impacts of Phase I dredging and did not identify long-term impacts to surface water quality. They are currently conducting similar modeling for Phase II. The results of their modeling will be used to identify if additional engineering controls will be needed during dredging to minimize short-term water quality impacts. Sediment sampling was performed to provide an estimate of the contaminant concentrations in the surface sediment both before and after dredging. The existing surface concentrations were used to identify the areas to be dredged. The environmental dredging in these areas will continue until the criteria in sediment quality guidelines have been achieved. The 2010 USACE Environmental Assessment (see question 13 above) recommends that in areas of the Ship Canal with the potential to release higher concentrations of soluble copper, that under the best of conditions the dredge production rate should be restricted to about 3000 cubic yards per day. Care would be taken to minimize the disturbance of the sediment bed by minimizing the number of lifts used to achieve the desired channel depth. In addition, barge overflow and bucket draining would be avoided. These measures will help to minimize the release of copper to the water column during dredging. USACE Engineer Research and Development Center has conducted similar evaluations for the USEPA Great Lakes National Program Office to ascertain what, if any, specific measures need to be implemented to ensure that Phase II dredging is also performed to reduce the potential for contaminant releases to the water column. This evaluation is pending and scheduled to be completed in 2011.

Habitat Quality

After dredging is done, what is planned to improve water quality?
We are currently completing designs for the habitat restoration phase of the river clean up. All six proposed projects will be designed in an attempt to increase dissolved oxygen in segments of the river, improving water quality in the river. In addition, private shoreline property owners are implementing better storm water management that could provide additional ecological benefit.

Buffalo River is at the receiving end of a large watershed. Once the contaminated sediment is removed, what will keep the river from again filling with contaminated sediment from the watershed?
Comprehensive chemical analyses within the river and the upper tributaries have shown that sediment being carried downstream is much cleaner than the historical sediment currently below the surface of the Buffalo River.

After the dredging, will the sediment be clean enough for other beneficial uses?
Yes. One of the guiding principles to the effort is to restore the river enough to allow the contaminant levels to be reduced to a point that would allow beneficial uses of sediments. BRRP would like to see future "beneficial re-use" of clean, dredged sediment for regional habitat and river restoration. Possible beneficial re-use opportunities include the use of dredged sediment for upland purposes, in-water restoration, or fill, rather than disposing of the sediment and taking up space in a Confined Disposal Facility (CDF) or landfill.

Will invasive species be considered for habitat restoration?
Any habitat restoration planning and design will consider the potential impacts of invasive species. All habitat restoration implementation will incorporate invasive species management as part of the project.

Why shouldn't we let the river go back to the natural stream it once was and learn to adjust to the flooding?
Congress mandates USACE to maintain the federal navigation channel and only Congress can change it. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) would also be involved in any decisions that would allow the river to re-connect to its natural floodplain. Due to the hundreds of homes and thousands of residents that would be impacted by such a decision, the restoration of the river is guided by depths authorized by Congress.

How will the restoration work benefit the river and the community?
There are a number of social, environmental and economic benefits associated with river remediation.

  • The remediation will reduce human exposure to contaminants through direct contact with contaminated sediments or from consuming contaminated fish from the Buffalo River;
  • The remediation will reduce the exposure of wildlife populations and the aquatic community to contaminated sediments;
  • The remediation will improve the likelihood that future dredging (for routine navigational, commercial, and recreational purposes) would not require special confined disposal of sediments;
  • The remediation will allow for improved navigation within this section of the Buffalo River, provide more river access and make the adjoining properties more attractive to redevelopment and reuse;
  • The remediation will meet the Buffalo River Remedial Advisory Committee's goal of protecting and restoring habitat and supporting wildlife.

Disposal Safety

Is placement of dredged sediment from Phase I and II in the CDF safe?
Yes, USACE has determined that placement in the CDF is and will be protective of human health and the environment. All dredged sediment will be placed in the existing USACE CDF 4 located in the Outer Buffalo Harbor adjacent to the Buffalo Harbor South Entrance Channel. USACE Engineer Research and Development Center performed two separate evaluations of the various tests of the sediment to be dredged under Phases I and II. The conclusions of these evaluations indicate that internal concentrations of contaminated pore water or carrier water will not cause lake contamination. Also, additional and ongoing upgrades have been made to ensure integrity of CDF walls.

How does the dredged sediment in Phase I differ from other material in the CDF?
The sediment to be dredged under Phase I and Phase II has been thoroughly tested and evaluated. The sediment to be dredged under Phase I is from within the navigation channel and is comparable to or slightly more contaminated than sediment routinely dredged from the Buffalo Harbor Federal navigation channels. Planned upgrades to the perimeter of this CDF were completed in 2010 prior to implementation of the dredging and attendant disposal operations. Specifically, recent upgrades to the CDF walls will augment the filtering of sediment laden fluids derived from dredging and subsequent dewatering from sediment settling. The CDF can safely and adequately accommodate this dredged sediment.

Will there be ongoing water quality monitoring at the CDF?
Water quality monitoring is not planned at the CDF for Phase I. Measuring water quality outside the dike wall will typically not signify adverse impacts to Lake Erie water quality relating to the CDF, as there could be multiple sources of pollution to the lake. The CDF is specifically designed to isolate contaminated sediment from adjacent land and water, while allowing for the safe release of excess water (effluent). The release of effluent through the dike walls is predicted (before dredged sediment placement) by lab testing and modeling to be non-toxic and comply with applicable water quality standards. The results of these predictive evaluations determine that the CDF can safely and adequately accommodate the dredged sediment. Major factors of consideration include sediment contamination and contaminant partitioning, available volume and residence time in the CDF, and contaminant dilution in the CDF. No effluent will be discharged through the CDF's overflow weirs during Phase I or Phase II.

Will there be ongoing water quality monitoring during dredging operations? Who will perform the monitoring and who will pay for it?
Water quality monitoring is not planned for Phase I. Prior to dredging, impacts to the water column due to sediment resuspension, including suspended solids and contaminant concentrations, are assessed through predictive lab tests and modeling. Modeling is based on sediment contaminant concentrations, partitioning parameters and geotechnical properties. Results are compared to federal water quality criteria established for the protection of aquatic life to ascertain the potential for adverse risk. The 2010 Environmental Assessment (see question 13 above) for Phase I indicates there is the potential for short-term risks to aquatic life from water column impacts during dredging. Methods to reduce short-term risk are described in questions 11 and 12 above. Short-term adverse affects must be compared to the long-term improvements in overall water quality resulting from to the permanent removal of contaminated sediments from the aquatic system. Water quality monitoring is planned for Phase II and will be incorporated into the project cost. Final construction monitoring requirements will be worked out by the state and federal regulatory agencies during the project permitting process. Responsibilities for monitoring activities will be determined during design and contracting activities.

Will there be long-term monitoring of the river after dredging is completed?
Long-term monitoring is not planned for Phase I. For Phase II, a post-dredging (3-5 years) long-term monitoring plan is currently being developed as part of the remedial design. The Buffalo River Remedial Action Plan will also develop an extended long-term monitoring protocol (greater than 5 years), and will be available for public review once finalized. Depending on the specific objectives of each plan, monitoring may be conducted on one or more of the following measures - sediment chemistry/toxicity, water quality, habitat quality, fish tissue concentrations, and benthic community.

Public Outreach

What kind of outreach/education is planned to alert residents, children and at-risk populations who use the river and eat the fish?
BRRP is currently implementing a public outreach plan that will last the life of the project. BRRP is committed to keeping local residents as informed as possible and will use multiple tools such as guest speakers, social media, signage, website, media interviews, one-on-one meetings, courtesy calls, etc. If the community has concerns now, they are encouraged to contact BRRP at 716-852-7483 ext. 21 (Jill Jedlicka's line from Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper).

Who can I call or report to if there are problems during the dredge operations?
For questions specific to Phase I, river users may contact USACE at 716-879-4410. For general project questions, contact BRRP at 716-852-7483 ext. 21 (Jill Jedlicka's line from Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper).

Is public feedback actually going to affect the outcome of the final restoration?
Yes. Public feedback may affect the scope of habitat restoration sites (expansion of proposed sites or implementation of alternative sites). With cost-share possibilities, the dredge footprint of Phase II could be expanded to meet the needs of property owners. Scheduling of operations in Phase II may be modified to avoid major river events or other unforeseen issues if it is within our means.

Can shoreline property owners talk with BRRP about options for cost-share or shoreline improvements?
Yes. BRRP has been and will continue to meet with individual shoreline property owners throughout 2011 and 2012 to identify and address concerns regarding shoreline stability and improvement or restoration cost-share possibilities. If you have not yet been approached by BRRP, please contact us at 716-852-7483 ext. 21 (Jill Jedlicka's line from Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper).

Source Control

Is this project linked to sewer overflow remediation? If so, how?
Historically, combined sewer overflows (CSOs) contributed chemical inputs into the Buffalo River. However, today, with the implementation of New York State's State Pollutant Discharge Elimination System program, environmental laws, and better wastewater treatment, the industrial chemical releases to the river through CSOs are expected to have negligible effects on sediment quality. The sediment that is being removed from the Buffalo River is mostly historical, and occurs at depths that suggest there are no longer significant chemical inputs into the river from sewers. The Buffalo Sewer Authority is in the process of finalizing a Long-Term Control Plan for CSOs in Buffalo. This process is separate from this project, and is also expected to bring about water quality improvements, specifically related to bacterial contamination.

There are several sites that are very environmentally hazardous along the banks. Have you identified them all and fixed them so they don't leak back into the river?
Over the years many hazardous waste disposal sites along the Buffalo River 6.2 mile Area of Concern have been identified and either are being addressed through New York State's cleanup programs or already have been remediated. These sites include Sovereign Specialty Chemicals, Steelfields (Former Republic Steel and Former Donner-Hanna Coke), Buffalo Color, and Exxon Mobil. Remedial actions at these sites were designed to remove, treat, or contain contamination and to prevent the migration of residual contaminants to the river. For example, the Buffalo Color site, home for over a hundred years to manufacturers of dyes and chemicals, no longer contributes to toxic loading in the Buffalo River. The Area D section is now a capped and secure landfill, the Area C section has been remediated and its owner given a Certificate of Completion, and Areas A, B and E are nearing completion. In the future, as information becomes available, DEC will continue investigations to ensure upland sites do not impair the Buffalo River. In addition to helping restore the river environment, DEC's Brownfield cleanups on the Buffalo River are paving the way for creative reuse of this long-neglected section of Buffalo's waterfront. DEC's Brownfield Cleanup Programs are also restoring the river's waterfront. For example, the City of Buffalo is now considering proposals for the development of Riverbend, which will transform the Steelfields site cleaned up under the State's remedial program, into a mixed use neighborhood offering light industrial, commercial, residential, and recreational opportunities. Please refer to DEC's Region 9 Remedial Information page for more information.

1. The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative was proposed by President Obama as a multi-year, multi-agency initiative to restore the Great Lakes. The GLRI was funded with $475 million dollars in 2010 to implement work that protects, cleans up, and restores the Great Lakes ecosystem in accordance with the 2010-2014 GLRI Action Plan (PDF) (1.28 MB). GLRI activities will address:

  • Toxic Substances and Areas of Concern;
  • Invasive Species;
  • Near shore Health and Nonpoint Source Pollution;
  • Habitat and Wildlife Protection and Restoration; and
  • Accountability, Education, Monitoring, Evaluation, Communication and Partnerships.

2. The Great Lakes Legacy Act of 2002 authorized $270 million in funding to specifically assist with the cleanup of contaminated sediment in 25 Areas of Concern (AOCs) either wholly or partially on the U.S. side of the Great Lakes. In 2008, the GLLA was reauthorized for two more years. To be eligible for GLLA funding, proposed projects must lie within a U.S. Area of Concern, and a minimum 35% of remediation costs must come from State and/or local sources.