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Love That Dirty Water
by Bruce Fisher
Will there be money for cleanup or for investor subsidies?
Tumors that are the result of pollution afflict more than one-third of the largemouth bass in the Buffalo River, which is the body of water on which the proposed Bass Pro shop was to have been built. Other species of fish in the Buffalo River are even worse off: 51 percent of a little fish called the gizzard shad have tumors. More than 85 percent of the Buffalo River’s brown bullheads have tumors. Overall, according to a 2008 status report on the federally mandated Buffalo River Remedial Action Plan, about 37 percent of the fish in the Buffalo River suffer from DELT—“deformities, eroded fins, lesions and tumors.”
There is a sense of urgency, and a new sense of possibility, about Great Lakes waterways like the Buffalo River. Since the advent of the Obama administration, the problems of brownfields, toxic sediments, poisoned wildlife, inedible gamefish, and stinking sewer overruns seem to be getting attention.
The specialists have been getting together frequently to talk about these problems. On October 6 and 7 in Buffalo, Canadian and US officials will meet to talk about brownfields at the fourth annual National Brownfield Association Canadian-US Brownfield Summit (CUBS). Currently underway and ending Saturday is the 39th annual conference of the North American Association for Environmental Education, also being held in Buffalo. Last week, the sixth annual Great Lakes Restoration Conference (“Putting people to work to restore the Great Lakes”) was held in Buffalo concurrently with the official US-Canada Great Lakes Commission’s Areas of Concern annual meeting. The Buffalo River was designated an official international “area of concern,” or AOC.
The Buffalo River is one of 43 AOCs. There are 26 in the US, 12 in Canada, and five that the two countries share. The list is long and depressing: Detroit, Cleveland, Toledo, and many lesser urban areas have them. In Buffalo, it’s the Buffalo River’s sediments, contaminated from a century of heavy industry, that made the last 6.2 miles of its run an AOC. But it’s not just old pollution: Ongoing pollution washes downriver from what are called “non-point” sources, mainly runoff from suburbs and farms far upstream. Inside the city limits, there are also 33 combined sewer overflow outfalls, which are basically big pipes that let raw sewage into the river, plus three connections to the Buffalo sewer system from outside sewer districts that also overflow into the river during storm events.
It is a big, big problem. Despite a couple of million dollars in undesignated fund balance showing on its latest financial disclosure documents, the Buffalo Sewer Authority doesn’t itself have the cash on hand to address all of its combined-sewer overflow violations. (There is a potential source of funds, but we’ll get to that later.)
But check out the time-line on this. The designation “area of concern” happened in the 1980s. The first draft of the remedial action plan (or RAP—these folks love acronyms) was delivered in 1989. Folks have been meeting, talking, testing the water, publishing scholarly papers, holding more meetings, talking, and occasionally doing some remediating, for the past 21 years.
And yet and still, today, 34 percent of a prized gamefish species, the largemouth bass, the bass that we like to catch and eat, have tumors. The Department of Conservation website advises against eating any fish that have tumors or lesions. The Department of Health website is a bit confusing: For the Western Region of New York State, it advises women over 50 and children under 15 years to eat no more than one meal per month of any Lake Erie fish except Chinook salmon less than 19 inches long, burbot, freshwater drum, lake whitefish, rock bass, or yellow perch. That’s the detail, but here’s the true fact: Most people never catch a burbot. The fish that most people set out to catch—specifically, walleyes, smallmouth and largemouth bass, the various types of trout—are in the category of not to be eaten more than once a month by women and children. Buffalo River carp shouldn’t be eaten at all.
And yet our entire political leadership put on red Bass Pro hats several years ago when the big sportfishing empire came to town. Everybody swears that recreational fishing is on the rise around here. Until about five minutes ago, a state agency called Empire State Development Corporation and its subsidiary Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation planned plan to spend a 50-year revenue stream of at least $3.3 million a year, plus some extra Power Authority money amounting to more than $2 million a year, on some waterfront, fishing-oriented retail store right next to the river, the harbor, and the lake that are so filled with sewage, PCBs, PACs, and injured wildlife that two other offices of the same state government tell you to stay away. Even today, while most of the rest of that revenue stream goes to an amorphous body called the Greenway Commisison, ESDC and ECHDC still have no commitment to let any of that money go to environmental remediation, which is the fancy word for cleaning up the mess in and around our water.
What’s going on here? Why are millions of dollars available for subsidizing development while these long-standing water-quality problems remain?
Cleaning up on cleanup money
Poking through the vast piles of documents from all the various meetings that have been convened for the past decade or so reveals an unavoidable truth: The Bush administration short-changed Great Lakes cleanup, even as scientists, engineers, local governments, activists, and even chambers of commerce began to understand that there is economic benefit to be had by addressing the problem of dirty water.
Last year in Milwaukee, the last time the Great Lakes Commission met to review the status of highly polluted AOCs, a document entitled “An agenda for jobs and economic transformation in the Great Lakes region” was released. Chambers of commerce from the 12 Great Lakes states all got together and endorsed a $26 billion program of environmental cleanup, asking the federal government to put up $13.75 billion of the amount. The rest of the dough is supposed to come from state and local sources. The reason the chambers of commerce like this kind of government spending is because of the economic benefit they see as the result of cleaning up the Great Lakes.
It’s a surprising document. Anti-tax, anti-government business organizations asked specifically for spending money on fixing combined sewer overflows in existing communities. In normal English, that means that white business guys saluted fixing the sewers in old cities.
The good news this season is that the federal government is doing its part. Long scheduled, now funded, some of the toxic-sediment dredging is about to begin this fall in the Buffalo River. (Some of the shoreline that is going to be dredged is owned by none other than Carl Paladino.) It will cost a couple of million bucks, and it will take until the end of 2011, just to dredge a couple of areas.
That leaves the rest of the Buffalo River, and there’s a lot more to do than dredging. To quote the official Environmental Protection Agency website on Canadian-US areas of concern, “There are 45 inactive hazardous waste sites within the AOC and contaminants of concern include PCBs, PAHs, metals, and industrial organics.” The EPA also mentions the 33 combined sewer overflow outlets, too.
But wait a minute. If money is the issue, and Bass Pro isn’t coming, and people not only want tumor-free fish to fish for but also clean water for themselves, on the theory that they actually require it for existence, then shouldn’t government use the money at hand to clean the water?
A growing coalition of citizens seems to think so. Earlier this week, on that rare night when there wasn’t a convention of international specialists in town talking about the urgent need to clean up the Great Lakes, about 50 people got together at the Parkside Lodge in Delaware Park to listen to Mark Goldman, the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit that is currently challenging those state agencies on their plans to spend more than $100 million of public money on a retail shopping mall next to the Buffalo River. There will soon be more community meetings about how to get green and clean into the thinking of government agencies that now have a $9-million-a-year payment every year for 50 years coming to them from the Niagara Power Project relicensing agreement.
The movement has a name, and a new FaceBook site: the Citizens Waterfront Project. Unlike the Canal Side project, this one is open to discussion about whether human health, wildlife health and public access should be part of any plan to spend all that money.
Bruce Fisher is visiting professor of economics and finance at Buffalo State College, where he directs the Center for Economic and Policy Studies.
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