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Channels: Stories From the Niagara Frontier

Still from "Everybody Lives Downstream"
Still from "You Are Where You Live"
Still from "Reclamation"
Still from "Living in the Shadow of the Bridge"

Squeaky Wheel documentary series looks at cleaning the Buffalo River, an East Side church, the Peace Bridge, and the regional fight against air pollution

In 1968, a US Department of the Interior report described the Buffalo River as a “repulsive holding basin for industrial and municipal waste.” It stated that the river was “devoid of oxygen and almost sterile. Oils, phenols, color, oxygen-demanding materials, iron, acid, sewage, and exotic organic compounds are present in large amounts.” The following year, the river was officially declared “dead.”Currently the river is being dredged to remove the worst concentrations of sedimentary pollutants, the water is getting cleaner, and plans are in the making to restore fish and wildlife habitats and for the creation of human recreational areas in and around the river. This rebirth miracle story is the subject of one of four videos produced last year through a Squeaky Wheel program that teams young filmmakers and area activist organizations to produce documentaries about significant issues that impact the local community. The series is being screened this month at the downtown Buffalo and Erie County Public Library, one a week, at noon on Thursdays. The one on the river, entitled Everybody Lives Downstream, by Anna Scime and the Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper organization, kicked off the screenings.

It’s a complex and involved story—the death and rebirth of the river—of historical forces and a gradual shift in awareness concerning the importance as well as the fragility of the natural environment, and substantial progress in terms of citizen activism in creating and implementing policies and programs that affect quality of life issues and the economy—too complex and involved to be expounded in detail in a half-hour video—but a story the video tells beautifully is how individual personal passion and hard work can affect even national policies regarding environmental stewardship.

In general and in one particular episode. One of the main narrators of the video is Jill Spisiak Jedlicka, the director of ecological programs for Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper. She relates the story of her great-uncle, Stanley Spisiak, a 1960s-era self-educated environmentalist and activist especially concerned about the Buffalo River, who of his own accord took samples and tested Buffalo River water, and was instrumental in making President Lyndon Johnson aware of the environmental degradation of the river.

At one point, when Johnson was here, Spisiak placed a bucket of contaminated sludge such as the Army Corps of Engineers was then dredging from the bed of the river—as part of regular maintenance of the waterway for shipping, but recall that this was a time of growing concern about the vitality not just of the river but of Lake Erie as well—before the president and told him: “Mr. President, this is what the Corps is dumping in Lake Erie.”

Johnson, and also Lady Bird Johnson, who was along on the visit, were appalled. Two weeks later, Johnson signed an executive order prohibiting open dumping of sludge in the Great Lakes. The order is still in effect and is responsible for a major aspect of the current cleanup project, which involves placing dredged sediments in a Confined Disposal Facility (located offshore of the old Bethlehem Steel property), where they are retained and immobilized, thus substantially limiting the leaching of contaminants into ambient waters, where they would affect aquatic plant and animal life. As opposed to dispersal of the dredged materials around the lake, or—another remedial action that is always considered in such situations—leaving the contaminated sediments in place in the river.

Relatively minor contaminant concentrations have been left in place in the river, where they are relatively harmless, again, like in the Confined Disposal Facility, because inert, and subsequently covered over by further sedimentation. But in major concentration areas (which tend to be in bend rather than straightaway sections of the river) river flow movements (which can be particularly complex in the Buffalo River because the flow is affected by changing lake surface levels—sometimes this river flows backwards) constantly agitate the sediments, re-entraining pollutants into the water column. Thus the need to dredge and remove.

Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper is unique in that, as a nonprofit agency, it is the lead agency in a major project in conjunction with the Corps of Engineers and the state Department of Environmental Conservation. Phase I of the project ($9 million) is just about complete, and Riverkeeper is in the process of securing funds (about $40 million) for the second and final phase, which will entail additional dredging and habitat restoration along the river shoreline.

Thursday’s video (February 9), by John Fink and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Resurrection, is called Reclamation. It is about the church’s Resurrection Village Ministry outreach in the economically stressed area around Genesee and Doat streets on the city’s East Side.

Next week (February 16), Living in the Shadow of the Bridge, by Mark Barner and the Niagara Gateway Columbus Park Association/Buffalo West Side Environmental Defense Fund, is about the impact of the changes in plans regarding the Peace Bridge on quality of life, property values, and health of area residents.

And the following week (February 23), You Are Where You Live, by Vince Mistretta and the Clean Air Coalition of Western New York, chronicles personal stories in the coalition’s fight for a healthy environment.

Representatives of the cooperating organizations will be present for discussions following the screenings. The Squeaky Wheel sponsorship program is called Channels: Stories from the Niagara Frontier.

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