A most-wanted list of toxic substances—including PCBs, dioxins, mercury, lead and pesticide—has lingered in western New York State’s Eighteen Mile Creek for decades, leaving its salmon, trout and other fish unsafe to eat and jeopardizing its wildlife.
Now the nation’s sour economy has complicated and delayed the already daunting cleanup of the Lake Ontario tributary, as well as several dozen other toxic hot spots around the Great Lakes.
"Given the fiscal situation in the State of New York, it’s really up in the air if the cleanup will get done," said Victor DiGiacomo, Jr., who chairs a local group of landowners, officials and others aiming to restore the area.
Eighteen Mile Creek, a meandering, lush stream in Niagara County known for its salmon and trout runs, is one of 43 highly contaminated sites that were designated "Great Lakes Areas of Concern" more than 20 years ago as part of a water-quality pact between the U.S. and Canada.
As a promise to expedite the cleanups, Congress passed the Great Lakes Legacy Act in 2002, and then last fall, reauthorized it for another two years. But the program remains hobbled by economic woes and bureaucratic hurdles, according to local officials involved in the cleanups.
"We’re essentially treading water. And if anything, we’re starting to go underwater," said Jordan Lubetkin of the nonprofit Healing Our Waters—Great Lakes Coalition, which represents more than 100 environmental and community groups.
Of the mills and factories that riddled the Rust Belt with industrial pollutants, many have shut down or downsized, leaving the region hard-pressed to come up with the needed cleanup funds.
To make matters worse, most of the contaminated streams, harbors and other sites are so-called orphans, where those responsible for the pollution have died, gone bankrupt or are otherwise unavailable to pay their share.
Chemicals in the sediment can cause reproductive problems in mammals, birds and aquatic life, and they become increasingly concentrated as they move through the food chains of ecosystems. State and federal officials have warned people not to consume fish from most water bodies around the Great Lakes. Some of the contaminants have been linked to cancer, neurological damage and other health problems in humans.
Dredging the contaminated sediments is likely to reach $1.5 billion to $4.5 billion at the Areas of Concern.
But Congress has not yet provided the funding recommended by an advisory group back in 2005. And the federal money that is available comes with a cost-sharing requirement that critics say is prohibitively high.
Nevertheless, Matthew Doss, policy director of the Great Lakes Commission, a binational agency, said officials have "started to make good progress under the Legacy Act."
So far, five cleanups have been completed, removing more than 1.7 million pounds of contaminants, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). One U.S. area—New York’s Oswego River—has been delisted, as have two in Canada, and a major cleanup of Ohio’s Ottawa River was announced last month.
For a site to receive funding under the Legacy Act, a non-federal entity must first provide a minimum of 35 percent of the project’s cost. The five completed projects have cost states, local governments and private groups $44 million, the EPA says.
Finding that 35 percent "has always been a challenge," Doss said. "I suspect it will continue to be so. The states have been in financial difficulty for many years."
That’s the most significant roadblock in cleaning up New York’s Eighteen Mile Creek, according to DiGiacomo.
"There are no entities capable of supplying that dollar amount," he said.
Eighteen Mile Creek—so named because it is 18 miles east of the Niagara River—offers important habitat for trout, steelhead, salmon and other fish as well as a threatened species, the Blanding’s turtle. The EPA has said contaminants there are likely to be causing bird and wildlife tumors and deformities. People eating its fish are at risk, too. Despite advisories against consuming the creek's fish because of high levels of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), the EPA says the area attracts roughly 15,000 anglers each year, particularly those flyfishing during fall salmon runs.
Cleanup is a similar struggle at southeast Michigan’s Clinton River, where PCBs, pesticides and other pollutants have triggered beach closings and fish consumption advisories, said Mark Richardson, who chairs the local cleanup committee.
"That’s a bigger problem than ever right now," he said. "Obviously these cleanups are very expensive, and local governments certainly don’t have the wherewithal to supply matching funds on their own. That has stalled projects generally."