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Communities in upstate New York and Vermont are still cleaning up from Tropical Storm Irene. Scientists are just now beginning to get a picture of the storm's environmental impact. Floodwaters ripped through some of the East's most pristine rivers, triggering hundreds of oil, chemical and sewage spills.

And as North Country Public Radio's Brian Mann reports, some environmental groups now worry that the cleanup could cause even more harm.

BRIAN MANN: When Irene blasted through the Adirondack Mountains late last month, brooks and streams that are usually docile this time of year jumped their banks.

(SOUNDBITE OF RIVER)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Wow.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The whole forest is falling down.

MALE: Oh, my God.

MANN: This video posted on YouTube shows Johns Brook carving a new channel through the forest as trees and rocks go tumbling. The storm triggered vast landslides that reshaped some of the wildest mountain landscapes in the East, washing away ponds and shifting rivers into new channels.

Joe Martens, head of New York State's Conservation Department, says no one's sure yet what all that chaos did to wildlife, including rare strains of brook trout.

JOE MARTENS: The streams and rivers around the flood impacted areas have taken a terrific beating.

MANN: Swollen rivers also flushed loose a huge amount of human gunk. In Keene, New York, Fiona Burns stood right here on the porch of her shop on Main Street watching as the Ausable River scooped up septic tanks and other debris.

FIONA BURNS: This was all a river. Refrigerators floating down, bikes, propane tanks exploded. It was kind of surreal.

MANN: River banks here are still cluttered with trash and Martens says cleanup crews are trying to contain loose materials.

MARTENS: We've responded to a record number of oil spills, well over 1,100. There were places where automobiles went downstream, buses, equipment, machinery. We're still out there now in places like Binghamton recovering tanks that were, you know, lodged loose and had to be recovered from streams.

MANN: Martens says his scientists are still in crisis mode and haven't begun to sort out what the cumulative impact of all those spills will be.

In the weeks following the storm, it's also common to see bulldozers and backhoes digging in the middle of these once pristine rivers. They're allowed here because Governor Andrew Cuomo temporarily suspended many of New York's environmental rules, shelving state laws protecting wetlands and scenic rivers. That move drew praise from local leaders and residents who say cleanup work has to be done fast before winter sets in.

But some environmental activists and scientists say construction crews like this one working on the bank of Styles Brook, just outside of Keene, are working too fast, not taking necessary precautions.

Carol Treadwell is a researcher who studies the geology of rivers in the Adirondacks and she heads the Ausable River Association.

CAROL TREADWEL: I can understand needing to do triage and put the roads back quickly so we can bring commerce back in, but I think we've gone a little farther than that and it's turned into the wild, wild West.

MANN: Treadwell says contractors are dredging too many streams, transforming wild pools and rapids that are crucial trout habitat into what she describes as drainage ditches. State officials say they're monitoring projects like the one on Styles Brook and they don't think cleanup work is doing permanent harm.

For NPR News, I'm Brian Mann in Saranac Lake, New York.

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