Thursday, May 25, 2017

A Short History of the Mahoning, Once Called “America’s Dirtiest and Hottest River”

When I was growing up in the Mahoning Valley during the 1950s and 1960s, people didn’t talk much about the river. We thought of it as a toxic brew of steel mill effluent and other industrial wastes, and we knew better than to go anywhere near it. The Mahoning River was so unapproachable, unclean, and untouchable that it was a joke at best and often a source of community shame. That’s why when a 12-year-old girl jumped into the Mahoning last week, I really took notice.

The Mahoning River near the Riverwalk in Warren, Ohio; photo taken in May of 2017
She was on an outing in Warren, Ohio, sponsored by Children Services, and no one seemed to know why she jumped in. But she floated along in the icy water for fifteen minutes, then passed over a low-head dam before she was rescued and taken to the hospital. Doctors found her to be chilled but otherwise in good health. As I read about her experience and her narrow escape from harm (the Warren Fire Chief said it was a miracle she survived because others who had gone over the dam had not been so lucky), I wondered what would have happened to me if I had jumped into that river back in the twentieth century.

A quick search online turned up a few references to the river’s past that sounded familiar. The blogger at Bob on Books, who sometimes writes about growing up in “Working Class Youngstown,” said, “My wife recounts going over the Mahoning on her bus to elementary school and watching greenish wastes pour directly into the river and watching the river bubbling. We used to joke that you wouldn’t dare wade in the river because you would dissolve.” A writer for the Youngstown paper, The Vindicator, raved about a 2016 fishing trip on the Mahoning but began his article by saying, “As a child of the 1950s and ’60s, I learned to associate the Mahoning River with nothing remotely connected to fishing./ It was water, yes. But it was polluted water. The Mahoning was the lifeblood of industry in Warren, Niles, Girard, Youngstown, Struthers, Campbell and Lowellville, but it was poison.”

These gruesome descriptions piqued my interest, and because I’m visiting friends in Youngstown right now, I decided to do more research. Though The Youngstown Vindicator is available online as part of the Google archive, it is difficult to search because many issues are missing and some of the text is nearly illegible. Luckily, diligent librarians at the Youngstown public library saved several folders full of newspaper articles about the river. These span nearly the whole twentieth century, from the 1920s through the 1990s, and the clippings gave me a sense of the things that seemed to characterize the Mahoning during much of that time: It was hot; it was contaminated by sewage; and it was contaminated by the toxic effluent of the steel industry. Though sewage and toxics still affect the Mahoning watershed, they were much more noticeable problems back then.

As early as the 1920s, the Vindicator occasionally published nostalgic articles about the river in its former, less polluted state. In 1926 the paper showed readers a photograph of a skater, taken fewer than fifty years earlier, with the accompanying description: “Here is a relic of the days when the Mahoning flowed water; water that would freeze. Instead of a current of fluid that carries Gulf Stream warmth and forever emerges victor after encounters with zero weather, the river then consisted principally of water.” [1] The river was so hot because its waters were used to cool red-hot steel, but at that time it was also more of a channel for human waste than for water.

A 1924 Vindicator editorial commended “an effort to clean up the Mahoning river between Girard and Warren and transform what is now regarded as an open sewer into a stream of beauty.” [2] But the problem of sewage contamination of the Mahoning proved difficult to resolve because it was expensive for local communities to build sewage treatment facilities. And there wasn’t as much of an incentive to do so when cities along the Mahoning could just dump their waste into the river. They might have continued to do so if it hadn’t been for the needs of the steel industry. In 1933, a Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. engineer called for a release of water from nearby Meander Lake because “with the river water low and the flow very slow, sewage emptying into the river from all valley towns, including Warren and Niles, is not diluted sufficiently, causing bad odors and miasmatic conditions affecting the men in the mills.” [3]

In 1936 the National Resources Board decided to study the Mahoning River basin with an aim of improving sanitation, which in turn would "primarily benefit the Youngstown steel industry and industries related to it." The Vindicator article about this study went on to say that 25 local steel plants needed a lot of water for cooling and that temperatures in the Mahoning River near Youngstown were often 100 degrees Fahrenheit. The sewage from the nine communities in the Mahoning watershed, with their combined population of 276,000, caused "objectionable odors," and "use of the water so polluted also means clogged pumps, increased pumpage and extra other costs to plants.” [4] I'll leave it up to you to imagine what was clogging those pumps, but the hot, sewage-contaminated Mahoning would certainly have sickened anyone who spent time in its waters. When I was a child we were frequently warned against wading or swimming in any of the ponds and creeks in the Mahoning watershed because they were “contaminated” -- and as recently as April of 1962 divers who needed to enter Lake Newport in Mill Creek Park in Youngstown had to be inoculated against typhoid.

A 1931 Image from the Warner Theater Inaugural Program Cover -- Barney Carnes, Artist; from The Mahoning Valley Historical Society; photographed on an exterior wall of the Five Star Graphics and Printing Co. in Girard, Ohio, near the banks of the Mahoning River.


Later on, the creation of sewage treatment facilities and a system of reservoirs to control the flow of the river helped to solve some of these problems for the local population and for the steel industry. But though industry needed the Mahoning for its own purposes, that didn’t mean they intended to treat the river kindly. During a brief slowdown of steel production after the Depression began, the condition of the water improved, and in a 1932 article called “They’re Fishing in the Mahoning Now That the Mills Are Down” I found the first instance of the widely quoted local dictum that jobs should be more important to the people of the Mahoning Valley than fish. [5] And in fact, as soon as the War effort began in earnest, things got worse for the Mahoning again.

By 1946 the Christian Science Monitor was inclined to call the Mahoning “America’s hottest and dirtiest river,” and went on to give this harsh description: “Lined with giant steel mills, railroads, fabricating plants, and power-generating plants, waters of the stream in hot summer months are used over and over again, 10 to 20 times… The water is used for steam boilers; generating electricity; cooling ceramic linings, doors, and jackets of blast furnaces and steel furnaces; and for washing or cooling red-hot steel being processed.” [6]

By 1950 the U.S. Geological Survey was calling the Mahoning “the most polluted stream in the United States,” [7] and though there was pressure to clean up the river, in 1951 the Vindicator reported “Anti-Pollution Action Here Largely on Paper.” A list of waste products included acid-iron, phenol, flue gas wash waters, and scale-bearing wastes, [8] but though the government had begun to pressure the steel industry to clean up its act, remediation was reported to be stuck in the planning stage. The sewage wasn’t quite as bad, but the water was still very hot and dirty.

I clearly remember that the river was in deplorable condition throughout the 1960s and 70s, and both government and industry did their best to make sure it stayed that way. In 1965 the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare called for a hearing on pollution of the Mahoning River, and in his testimony Congressman Michael Kirwin harshly condemned the HEW for their concern about the temperature of the water and the fact that fish couldn’t live in it. He asked whose life the river was meant to sustain: "People? Fish? If one means sustain the life of people, that is just what the Mahoning is doing now. It is now and always has been and, I trust, always will be, an industrial stream. Certainly, without it, there would be no economic life in the Mahoning Valley. There would be no roaring steel mills, nor humming associated and supporting industry. I submit that the Mahoning is doing a workhorse type of job in sustaining life right now.” He dismissed fish as largely a concern of “our sporting population,” and concluded by saying that while Native Americans might once have fished in a pristine Mahoning River, “[t]he Indians had no television to watch and no jet planes on which to ride. And I ask you now, who was better off, the Indians or you and I, here, today? If losing the fish in the industrialized stretch of the Mahoning was the penalty we had to pay, then I say, and I think you will agree, it was a penalty worth paying.” [9]

When the Cuyahoga River in nearby Cleveland caught fire in 1969 (not for the first time, but the incident was reported in an issue of Time Magazine that was widely read because it included coverage of another water-related scandal, the one at Chappaquiddick), national outrage about our foul waterways helped facilitate the passage of the Clean Water Act. In the early 70s the Ohio Water Pollution Control Board set “Fresh water fishery” standards on the Mahoning’s industrialized stretch [10], but in 1973 Ohio Governor Gilligan was asked to help reduce the need for pollution controls in the river. This request was the “first move in a campaign to get pollution standards relaxed on the valley’s economic blood stream.” [11] In 1974 the EPA agreed to compromise [12] and, as time went on, largely absolved the steel industry from their responsibility for pollution control.

The Cuyahoga River today; photo taken in May of 2017 at Cuyahoga Valley National Park

In 1976 an article with the apt title of “Jobs -- Not Fish -- Win in Ohio Steel Town” appeared in the New York Times and explained to the nation why the E.P.A. had decided to “allow the Mahoning to remain dirty.” “Each day,” the Times reported, “the eight steel mills that sprawl along the Mahoning’s banks dump 158 more tons of debris into the water. Nobody here seems to care very much.” The Times reported that pollution control measures would be expensive for the aging plants of the Mahoning Valley, and according to a study done by Ernst & Ernst, 28,890 jobs could be at risk. That was why the Western Reserve Economic Development Agency, a group sponsored by the Commerce Department, organized the meetings that “finally derailed the E.P.A.” Though hearings were held, the community united in its fear of economic ruin, and “[w]hile an endless line of local public officials and other witnesses paraded before the packed meeting room, all of them condemning the proposed requirements, 500 steelworkers marched outside carrying signs that read, ‘We want jobs, not fish’ and ‘Steel, not eel.’” [13]

And then in September of 1977 came a day known as Black Monday when the Youngstown Sheet & Tube Company announced that it would shut down the Campbell Works and lay off the workers there. Soon after, other Sheet & Tube plants, as well as those of U.S. Steel and Republic Steel, followed suit. More than 10,000 jobs were lost in the steel industry and thousands more supporting jobs were consequently phased out. The industry that said it would have to eliminate jobs if forced not to pollute the river, closed down anyway not long after it received exemptions. And though the E.P.A. was rebuked by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit for giving the steel industry a free pass [14], the steel industry escaped unscathed. And then, at least for a while, the Mahoning Valley had neither jobs nor fish.

Though the people of this area have never really quite recovered from these hard times, the end of industrial contamination did lead to improved river quality. By 1991 the Vindicator could report that the “Mahoning resurrects itself,” and Dr. Lauren Schroeder, Youngstown State University biologist and tireless champion of the river, said the Mahoning River was finally able to meet the Ohio EPA’s water quality standards. [15] As for the fish, in 1995 the Ohio EPA was still pulling fish from the river that had been blind since birth, that had tumors around their gills, or that had fins and scales eroded by bacteria. Again asked to comment, Dr. Schroeder said he remembered when 7,000 gallons of oil were dumped into the water daily, so it was likely that carcinogens were still present in the river. [16] It wasn’t, in fact, until 2015 that the EPA was willing to say that it was safe to eat fish caught in the Mahoning River once a month.

Though I wish I knew how the girl who jumped into the Mahoning is doing now, I realize that privacy laws prevent the media from inquiring further about her. Hopefully, the river is now a place where a child can take an ill-advised plunge and experience few side effects. One child’s well-being is reason enough to worry about the state of the river, but have you ever wondered why the consequences were so severe when the city of Flint, Michigan, changed the source of its drinking water to the Flint River? It wasn’t just coincidence that the river water leached the lead from the pipes of Flint households and created an unimaginable nightmare for Flint residents, particularly parents who worry about the long-term effects of lead on their children’s health. The Flint River, like the Mahoning, was a “workhorse” of the industrial era and contaminated by human and industrial waste so that it had to be chlorinated to eliminate disease-causing bacteria. This in turn made the water acidic and able to leach the lead from Flint households’ pipes. What happened in Flint is a reminder that Dr. Schroeder was right when he said, in his testimony before the 1974 EPA hearing on the Mahoning River: “If the ecologists have done nothing else in the last 50 years they have demonstrated that natural systems are immensely complex and interdependent and that man is not above or separate from these systems. If humans are to have a healthy existence both physiologically and psychologically, then the system of which we are a part must be healthy.” Then, as now, that would include healthy rivers.

Here are some cursory endnotes on the articles that I found in the clippings file but couldn't fine online:

[1] “They Skated on the Mahoning And Here’s Picture to Prove It,” Youngstown Vindicator, February 22, 1926

[2] “The Mahoning River,” a May 16, 1924 Youngstown Vindicator editorial

[3] “Boehme Says Release to River Was Step to Guard Health,” Youngstown Vindicator, August 18, 1933

[4] “National Board Will Study Mahoning River Sanitation,” by Paul May, Youngstown Vindicator, September 2, 1936

[5] “They’re Fishing in the Mahoning Now That the Mills Are Down,” Youngstown Vindicator, June 23, 1932

[6] “River in Ohio Cooled to Aid Steel Industry,” Christian Science Monitor, March 1, 1940

[7] “U.S. to Make Report on Mahoning Pollution,” Youngstown Vindicator, April 19, 1950

[8] “Anti-Pollution Action Here Largely on Paper,” Youngstown Vindicator, June 17, 1951

[9] “Local Folks Were a Little Indignant Over Federal Hearing on Mahoning River Pollution,” Farm and Dairy, February 24, 1965

[10] “Steel, OE Protest River Costs,” Youngstown Vindicator, September 30, 1971

[11] “Ask Gilligan Cut River Standards,” Youngstown Vindicator, December 19, 1973

[12] “Agree to Ease River Cleanup,” Youngstown Vindicator, January 15, 1974

[13] “Jobs -- Not Fish -- Win in Ohio Steel Town,” by Steven Rattner, New York Times, April 5, 1976

[14] "Can firms duck rulings by pleading poverty?" American Bar Association Journal, Vol. 63, No. 11 (November, 1977), p. 1529

[15] “Mahoning resurrects itself,” Youngstown Vindicator, April 5, 1991

[15] “Sick Fish Tell a Tale of Pollution,” Youngstown Vindicator, February 5, 1995

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