For the last 24 years Spisiak has been chairman of the Water Resources Committee of the council, which represents 300,000 organized sportsmen in the state. A tireless speaker (31 appearances in 25 days recently), he was not a popular figure with politicians or industry officials as he declaimed against polluters. In 1953 he began carrying a pistol after part of his nose was torn loose from his face by two thugs who had been hired to throw him down a flight of stairs after one of his speeches.
As Spisiak saw it, Lake Erie's problems were manifold, but the principal one was the annual dredging of pollutants from the 15 lake ports. The resulting "spoil" was then dumped in the open lake. In the Buffalo River alone, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dredged 175,000 cubic yards of spoil a year to keep the river navigable. Indeed, industries discharged so much coal-tar residues and other wastes that barges serving the companies were unable to dock alongside the plants unless the spoil was dredged. All the spoil dredged by the corps was dumped in the lake two miles off Buffalo. Inasmuch as the corps had been dredging and dumping at the same site for more than 50 years and the lake depth was still 35 to 50 feet, Spisiak maintained that the countless tons of pollutants were being widely dispersed by currents. The corps disagreed. "Idiots," said Spisiak. He urged that the spoil be placed in diked impoundments so pollutants could not circulate in the lake.
All told, the corps was dredging and dumping 4.5 million cubic yards of spoil each year from the 15 lake ports. "Enough," Spisiak was fond of telling congressional committees and anyone else who would listen, "to fill a 500-mile-long freight train of coal cars. They would reach from Buffalo to Washington, D.C."
In January of 1966 Spisiak went to Washington to receive the Water Conservationist of the Year award from the National Wildlife Federation. Seated next to Mrs. Lyndon Johnson at the dinner, he told her of the corps' abuse of Lake Erie. Lady Bird brought the problem to her husband's attention, and that August they both came to Buffalo to see Spisiak. On the morning of the President's arrival, Spisiak took a Coast Guard cutter up the Buffalo River and used a bucket to haul up slop from the bottom. When the presidential party came on board, Spisiak handed the bucket and stirrer to the President. LBJ stirred the bucket. Everyone got a whiff.
Spisiak: They're dumping 175,000 cubic yards of this slop right out in the lake every year from the Buffalo River. They're dumping 4.5 million cubic yards every year from 15 ports.
LBJ: Who's they?
Spisiak: The U.S. Corps of Engineers.
LBJ: Why, those bastards!
Lady Bird: Oh, Lyndon, we mustn't let this continue.
LBJ: Don't worry, I'll take care of it.