Buffalo River Rebound: Science At The Turning Point

By on March 14, 2016

Remains of Cargill plant on Buffalo River. (Credit: Dave Pape via Creative Commons 2.0)

Back in the 1960s and 1970s, the Buffalo River was an industrial wasteland. Up and down its banks were plants owned by companies like Allied Chemical and Republic Steel. These pumped out pollutants without much hindrance, setting the river’s course toward disaster.

The effects of all the industrial waste and the apathy that let it course through the currents of the meandering Buffalo River were substantial. Thermal pollution was rampant and waters in the river were near 100 degrees Fahrenheit year round. Add to this the oil slicks and all the cancer-causing guck that was amassing in the river’s sediments and it’s easy to see why wildlife didn’t want to make a home there.

But given the right actions and regulations, along with precise research into what the river needed, the Buffalo River has made a rebound. This is the story of its redemption, with a focus on the turning point that began the slow march to bringing the river back from its catastrophic environmental state.

It begins with the realization that the river really was in a poor condition, that something needed to be done about it and a look at some of the first steps taken to help turn around its health. It goes on to highlight a more recent investigation that reveals how the river is doing in the present day.

Turning Point

Well before the famous Cuyahoga River Fire of 1969, the Buffalo River had burned something fierce. But there wasn’t the same amount of media coverage for the event — why?

“It was the original industrial river that caught on fire, but the Cuyahoga (River) gets more press. It was because the oil slicks caught on fire,” said Bob Baier, executive director of the Industry/University Center for Biosurfaces at the University at Buffalo. “I had the interesting eye of being a young environmental scientist those days, sampling the oil slicks and (occasionally) pulling up dead bodies.”

The river that exists today is far different than the one Baier encountered when he was just starting out as a researcher. And so is the technology that is used to monitor the river. Back in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, many of the devices that environmental scientists depend on today simply didn’t exist yet. This meant that Baier, who was working at the Cornell Aeronautical Lab at the time, had to invent tools to get the job done.

The big problem was all the oil. Slick after slick everywhere along the river, and it just kept coming. Baier told us stories of children who would go swimming in the water only to come back with rings of oil clinging to their skin. And another detailing how the currents carried oil downstream to a local yacht club where it adhered to all the rich people’s boats.

That may or may not have been one of the reasons that then-Congressman Jack Kemp would begin working with federal agencies to get funding for cleaning up the waterway. But his efforts and those of others amidst the growth of the environmental movement would draw more attention to polluted waterways like the Buffalo River along the way toward important milestones like the Federal Water Pollution Control Act and the formation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

It was amidst this growing support for environmentalism that Baier and others set out to study the usefulness of oil skimmers that could help to clean up the river, or at very least keep the quantities of oil flowing in from becoming too burdensome.

Back then, there were no oil dispersants, like the kind used after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster. And so the invention of compounds that could whip the stuff up into collectable globs would become a milestone discovery of the period, something Baier had a personal hand in. Getting there would take the tech of the day, with some finagling by determined scientists, and a little luck.

“What we were doing predominantly was sampling oil slicks. There were browns and greens floating downstream past Michigan Street,” said Baier. “We’d collect the oil, analyze it and try to pinpoint its origins. The City of Buffalo had a huge problem with merged stormwater, so diesel fuel, gas station dumping — after a big rain, that would come into the Buffalo River, which augmented what industry was putting in. The fact that it burned brought a turning point.”

Throughout the late 1960s, scientists at the Cornell Aeronautical Lab tested oil skimmers with the hope that they could collect the oil for removal. These were carried out at a number of locations along the river and executed using stainless steel, chrome-plated drums that could float. Each buoy-mounted skimmer was just shy of 10 inches in diameter and 2 feet long and equipped with windshield wiper motors that had been rigged to spin in one direction instead of the typical back-and-forth motion.

But when attempts were made to analyze the samples collected to figure out the oil-to-water recovery ratio, Baier and others found that all the oil had just congealed to the skimmer blades. This pointed to a need for some type of chemical agent that could concentrate the oil so that it could be easily collected by the skimmer.

The solution was to use piston films. One that Baier invented, called Surface Magic, was marketed elsewhere in the nation as a way to clean up oil slicks. Though it’s not used as widely today, it can be found around Florida swimming pools where it is used to concentrate leaves and other debris that falls in so that it can be filtered out by the pool’s system.

“You would spray it onto the surface and it would take over and compress it into a sludge to collect it more efficiently,” said Baier. “There was a great urgency in the city at the time because gas stations were leaking into the sewer system. What we were able to do was take Surface Magic, add it to the gas station line and then it took hold and drove it out to the Buffalo River where we would hold it in an air barrier. Then we’d hire a cleanup service to remove it.” A chemical constituent of Surface Magic, he says, was used to treat waters after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

Bob Baier demonstrates the effectiveness of Surface Magic (sorbitan monooleate), in fighting oil slicks and surface debris. The substance was used to help clean up the Buffalo River. (Credit: University at Buffalo)

In addition to the air barriers and Surface Magic, he and other researchers installed a floating buoy in the center of the Buffalo River with a fluorescent sensor interface to catch spills before they got too far downstream. The sensor utilized an argon lamp that emitted ultraviolet light through the oil slicks. That technology would later be scaled up so that it could be used in sterilizing medical equipment. The purple glow, it seems, is very good at killing “super bugs,” he says.

The oil slicks were so common that people just assumed there would be slicks. And it was clear that there was still more that needed to be done to rid the Buffalo River of the contaminant.

“All that ooze and grease going in all the time, we started putting detectors in the sewer lines to stop the overflows,” said Baier. “Once we put up the detectors, a lot of the gas stations started to work more carefully. Once we put up a box just marked with ‘detector’ on a pole and the gas station stopped dumping. If you think you’re being watched, you don’t do these things.”

The oil slicks were the most visual representation of the problems that the Buffalo River was facing, and Baier’s work revealed useful methods for removing and managing them. But that was just one facet of the Buffalo River’s turnaround. There was still a lot of groundwork to be done.

Baier says that Jack Kemp’s work played a big role in securing grants that would cover some of the costs associated with cleaning it up further. “It took a lot of political might to develop the constituency at the D.C. side,” said Baier. On the local side, he says that folks at the Buffalo Niagara RiverKeeper should get a lot of credit for the work they’ve done.

Decades Later

Fast forward to the 1990s and the Buffalo River is a different waterway. The oil slicks of the 1970s are gone, and so are many of the plants that used to pollute the river so frequently. Tom Diggins is a newly minted doctoral student at the University at Buffalo and is conducting research into the Buffalo River’s benthic fauna.

For that work, he and others ventured out into recently dredged channels to sample the various tiny life forms that survive there, like midges and sludge worms. Their tools of choice included ponar grab samplers, which allowed them to take direct samples from the Buffalo River’s streambed.

The funny thing about the Buffalo River, he says, is that’s its hydrology is such that it acts more like a lake than a river when you approach studying it. So using other methods for studying the fauna, like plate samplers (also called Hester-Dendy samplers) wouldn’t work the best.

“Because of the situation, the Buffalo River acts more like a lake than a stream. You could put plate samplers in a powerful river and not get anything,” said Diggins, now a professor of evolution and ecology at Youngstown State University. “But we got down in the sludge and we used little grab samplers to take direct bottom samples. I’m kind of a proponent of in-situ sampling across the board.”

The sludge was then run through a 500-micron-mesh filter to sift out its contents, which were identified and counted back in the lab. The results of the survey, completed between 1990 and 1994, showed a couple things.

For one, the sedimentary environment outside of the Area of Concern was much healthier than the one inside it. For another, the most impacted areas didn’t exactly follow close to where the point sources had or were putting pollutants into the waterway.

“It ranged from bad to not the worst in the Great Lakes,” said Diggins. “You could put it in the upper quartile, but it was not as bad as the worst.”

After 10 years went by, it was time for Diggins and others to assess the health of the river’s benthic fauna once again. Only this time the goal was to figure out which areas would be the most ideal for habitat restoration, in a work partnering with the Buffalo Niagara RiverKeeper.

“In the 1994 work, we were looking at a dredge channel. In the ‘03, ‘04 work, the focus was on the benthic fauna at shoreline areas,” said Diggins. “At best, we could see near the shoreline that substrates had better communities than out in the dredge channel. But they were no better than they were in the 1990s. They were dominated by sludge worms with mouthpart deformity frequencies that were pretty comparable to the 1990s.”

Western end of the Erie Canal, near Canalside park. (Credit: Alan Kotok via Creative Commons 2.0)

Diggins says that he would like to start another assessment of the river’s benthic fauna relatively soon if he can secure funding. It would maintain the nice 10-year gap he’s been able to keep between his first two studies, and it’s time to see what changes there are.

Back in the 1960s and 1970s, the river’s benthic communities were dead. From that point on, investigations have shown that there’s been a pretty steady increase in environmental quality. The river has during that time transformed into a functioning, yet still badly impaired waterway.

Towards the beginnings of the river’s rebound, it clearly had nowhere to go but up. Nowadays, Diggins thinks the gains may be harder to achieve.

“We may be in that situation because the Buffalo River’s habitat is still altered by human activities,” said Diggins. These include dredging that removes sediments to maintain turning channels for freighters shipping goods through the meandering and once wetland-nourishing Buffalo River. “We probably are continuing to get water or sediment improvements, but we’re not getting habitat improvements.”

Some of that has to do with the influx of invasive species living in and around the waterway. Diggins has seen the extent of these firsthand during a sampling trip with some biology students.

One of his students, he says, was standing on a nearby shoreline assessing something when he snapped a few photos. After getting back to the lab and reviewing the scenes, Diggins found that the river was much more impacted than it seemed from a quick glance.

“There should be native trees, willows and plants. The problem is you get Eurasian watermilfoil, phragmites, purple loosestrife. When our botany student was out there when we were doing a semi-quantitative assessment of flora (in 2004), there are trees of heaven, Japanese knotwood, phragmites and purple loosestrife, Eurasian milfoil behind him,” said Diggins. “It was 100 percent invasives. So any habitat assessment will have to take into account that there are invasive species out there. We’ve got to get native species back in there to stave off the invaders.”

In addition to bringing back the native species, Diggins has some other suggestions for improving the Buffalo River’s health further. They relate to re-naturalizing the river, or essentially letting it run wild. All the dredging that is done to make turning areas for freighters, he says, could be stopped to allow the river’s wetlands to come back.

In past decades, a meandering Buffalo River built wetlands through sediment deposition, providing habitat for benthic fauna that form the base of its food chain. Not only that, but healthy wetlands tend to equal cleaner water, as they act as natural filters to remove toxins and contaminants.

“The meanders are already there. They’ve been exaggerated for turning basins of the freighters, but they’d fill in if we stopped dredging them,” said Diggins. “They would re-naturalize because they’re so unnatural today. The sediments from upstream would come down and build wetlands. Every time we’re out there, we see waterfowl — the wildlife will be there if there’s habitat.”

Current Day

There’s more work to be done to fully restore the health of the Buffalo River.

Dredging, though it may be bad for sediment deposition and the construction of wetlands in the long run, has been a useful tool for removing a great deal of contaminated sediments that lingered after the river’s industrial heyday. The bulk of that dredging work, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, wrapped up in 2014.

More current remediation work aims to continue cleaning up the river, restore habitat along its banks and in the water, as well as continue monitoring its health. From there, officials involved with its cleanup are hopeful its Area of Concern could soon be delisted. The return of safe fishing and swimming may also happen within five to 10 years.

Instead of the steel plants and the oil factories that once lined the river, new and greener industries are popping up. There is a major solar panel maker that has recently set up shop, Baier says.

There is also a growing push to turn areas along the riverfront back into usable space for residents and visitors to the city, with hopes of creating robust economic activity in cleaner ways than those of the past.

This is marked by a stream of improvements that have made the Canalside area a hip destination for people looking to get out and once again enjoy the riverfront. The area was set up as the heart of Buffalo, New York’s waterfront revitalization push, and boasts events year round, like concerts, and other attractions like ice skating, strolls along the boardwalk and food vendors.

“There is visual access to Canalside,” said Baier. This came after the destruction of the Buffalo Memorial Auditorium, the old home of the Buffalo Sabres professional hockey team. “That building was completely flattened and the area was rediscovered. We have tourists here now where we used to have piss and corruption.”

Top image: Remains of Cargill plant on Buffalo River. (Credit: Dave Pape via Creative Commons 2.0)


  1. chris crow

    March 18, 2016 at 12:20 pm

    Enjoyed the article. Did Mr. Baier really say “piss and corruption” in his last quotation of the article? If so, that’s a very descriptive, if not a slightly confusing, description.

    • Daniel Kelly

      March 18, 2016 at 12:59 pm

      Hi Chris, thanks for your comment. That’s a direct quote. I think Mr. Baier simply meant to describe the type of poor conditions and mismanagement that put the Buffalo River into such bad shape over the years.

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