Saturday, June 17, 2017

The Mahoning River in 2017

At the end of my previous post on the Mahoning River, I quoted from Dr. Lauren Schroeder’s eloquent 1974 testimony to the EPA about the then-urgent need to clean up the river. Dr. Schroeder is a long-time advocate for the Mahoning and is now Professor Emeritus of the Biology Department at Youngstown State University. Though I arrived in Youngstown too late to hear any of his recent talks on “The Saga of the Mahoning,” on May 27 I actually got to speak with him by phone.
The Mahoning River near Girard, Ohio; photo taken in May of 2017
Dr. Schroeder told me that the river is generally much improved since the days when riverside communities dumped their sewage into it – which continued until the 1960s – and local industry used the river as a dump for waste products. (According to a brochure produced by Friends of the Mahoning River, during a single day of operations the nine Mahoning Valley steel mills discharged 400,000 pounds of floating debris; 90,000 pounds of ammonia nitrogen; 500 pounds of cyanide; 600 pounds of phenolic waste; 800 pounds of zinc; and 200 barrels of oil into the water.) But though the river has made a remarkable comeback, Dr. Schroeder acknowledged there are still problems.

Three areas, he said, are of most concern: 1) Legacy sediments that contain pollutants from industry – which he said constitute 30% of the problem; 2) Continuous runoff from storm sewers and other nonpoint sources – also 30% of the problem; 3) And habitat degradation resulting from low-head dams – another 30% of the problem. Dr. Schroeder said that the removal of the low-head dams would allow the river to flow freely and cleanse itself, and as a result pollutants could be reduced by 30%. At that point the Mahoning could come close to meeting the Ohio EPA’s “warm water fisheries habitat” standards. And in fact the removal of the low-head dams is already being planned.
Crossing the Mahoning Avenue bridge on the way to RiverFest 2017
“Because mills and railroad tracks lined the river from Warren to the Pennsylvania line, the banks of the Mahoning were never developed,” Dr. Schroeder told me. As a result, he added, you can canoe or kayak along the river and see the riparian environment much as it looked before the Mahoning Valley was industrialized. On June 3 I was able to see people doing exactly that at the 2017 RiverFest, which is organized by Friends of the Mahoning River.

This event takes place near the old B & O Station on the banks of the Mahoning, and the main parking lot was already full when my friends and I got there at noon. Because I had recently spent time reading about the river’s tortured history, it was a nice contrast to hear music on the riverbank, see children playing nearby, and watch people launching canoes and kayaks and paddling them serenely up and down the river. We weren’t interested in taking a boat ride, but we walked beside the water on a shady trail, which was lined with a number of large trees and flowering plants. The riverside smelled of vegetation and moist earth, and there was no trace of the noxious fumes that used to waft from its waters.
Boats in the water at RiverFest 2017 in Youngstown, Ohio; photo taken in June of 2017
A number of local groups tabled at RiverFest, including Frack Free Ohio and the Sierra Club. At the Ohio EPA table, in addition to informational brochures, there were small trays of river water that held crayfish and the larvae of drangonflies and/or damselflies. These, I was told, had been taken from the river that morning. During the mid-twentieth century, by contrast, the only living things found in the Mahoning were sludgeworms, which can survive in polluted waters few other creatures can endure.  I asked about fish and was told they have been regularly tested by the EPA and are now considered safe to eat once a month -- and even more often than that for some species.

At the Friends of the Mahoning River table, I picked up a brochure that said the Mahoning is now one of only a few inland river systems in Ohio in which you will find muskellunge fish (known as muskies). Other fish that have made a comeback include walleye, small and large-mouth bass, channel catfish, sucker species, and carp. Because of this surprising diversity, among other reasons, Friends of the Mahoning consider their river to be a “diamond in the rough,” and the fact that 2017 marked the sixth RiverFest, with a seventh being planned for 2018, shows their ongoing commitment to restoring and caring for the Mahoning.

Like the Friends of the Mahoning, Dr. Schroeder seems very positive about the future of the river; however, he said that the story of the Mahoning, though an important one, is small compared to an environmental issue with global implications such as climate change. When the mills were operating at their peak, he added, you couldn’t see across the river because of pollutants in the air, but the clean up that has taken place since then has been due to the efforts of the EPA. This agency is now facing major budget cuts, and the question of how we will resolve climate change without the EPA’s continual oversight reminds us that our future is uncertain.

When I asked Dr. Schroeder if one of the threats to the Mahoning in the future might be fracking, which is currently experiencing a resurgence in the Mahoning Valley, he said that incidental illegal discharges could affect the river for a while but wouldn’t have long-term consequences unless they are widespread and continuous. He noted that in 2013 when 200,000 gallons of crude oil and brine were illegally dumped into a storm drain which in turn emptied into the Mahoning, the responsible party ended up serving jail time.

I had found several references to this illegal discharge into the Mahoning when I was researching the river’s history, and I knew that members of Frack-Free Mahoning Valley had been part of an apology made to the river in 2013. In mid-May I had attended a meeting of that group, and I was impressed with their seriousness and their concern with all the possible impacts of fracking, such as increased numbers of earthquakes and possible contamination of the water supply. Right now the group is focusing their efforts on getting a community bill of rights on the ballot so that citizens have a greater say about issues like the quality of their drinking water and fracking. Though they have tried several times in the past to get this issue on the ballot, they're making a concerted effort again this year. (The text of the Community Bill of Rights can be found at the Protect Youngstown site.)

During the course of the meeting, one of the group's members noted that if the Citizens United ruling could give corporations legal personhood, the same rights could and should be given to human communities and the natural world. A few days earlier I had read the Whanganui River — New Zealand’s third longest and revered by the indigenous Maori people — was granted rights which means that polluting the river is now legally equivalent to harming a human. I left the Frack-Free Mahoning Valley meeting wondering how the Mahoning River ecosystem would have fared in the twentieth century if that much-abused river had been given legal standing.

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