Massive Buffalo River cleanup

reaches halfway point

The first phase of a massive sediment cleanup in the Buffalo River is already producing results.


The Buffalo River was one of several Great Lakes rivers that were so polluted they caught fire in the 1950s and ’60s.  Local industries and municipalities treated the Buffalo River as an open sewer for much of the 20th century, dumping toxic chemicals and raw sewage into the waterway. The result was a horribly polluted river, nearly devoid of life, that also pumped toxic contaminants into Lake Erie and the Niagara River. Historic pollution poisoned miles of the river’s muddy bottom with polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), and heavy metals. The river was designated a Great Lakes Area of Concern in 1987. Now Buffalo’s namesake river is undergoing a dramatic transformation, thanks to a $44 million project that is one of the largest river cleanups ever in the United States. The project will improve water quality, create new habitat for fish and wildlife, and improve navigation  in the City Shipping Canal. Crews are roughly halfway through a project that will remove one million cubic yards of toxic sediment from the river. A prolonged effort to restore a 6.2-mile stretch of the river has already produced dramatic improvements. Thirty species of fish now live in parts of the river that were once too contaminated to support any fish, and an area of the river referred to in the past as a “repulsive holding pond” is now home to marinas. Local residents are rediscovering the river, which has become a centerpiece in efforts to revitalize downtown Buffalo — once known as the “Queen City” of the Great Lakes. In 2011-2012, crews removed 550,000 cubic yards of contaminated sediment from the middle of the river. The second phase of the cleanup, which began in October 2013, will remove another 488,000 cubic yards of toxic mud (about 33,000 truckloads of toxic mud) from the sides of the river. Once the dredging of contaminated sediment is complete, crews will restore fish and wildlife habitat in and along the river. The project will be complete in 2015.

Resource Challenges Addressed

  • Contaminated sediment
  • Poisoned aquatic life
  • Health threats to wildlife and humans
  • River devoid of life
  • Contaminants in the river


Aerial view of the Buffalo River

The Buffalo River, which runs through the city of Buffalo, N.Y.–pictured here in the distance–has been a working river with contaminated sediment. Credit: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Results and Accomplishments

Crews have already removed 550,000 cubic yards of contaminated sediment from the river and will dredge another 488,000 cubic yards of toxic mud from the river bottom by the end of 2014. The dredging operation and earlier restoration activities have resulted in numerous species of fish and other aquatic life returning to parts of the river that were once dead. Removing one million cubic yards of toxic sediment will reduce human exposure to contaminants through direct contact with the polluted river bottom or from consuming contaminated fish. The work will also improve navigation, reduce the need for future dredging and advance efforts to get the Buffalo River removed from a list of Great Lakes Areas of Concern.