Pollution, politics clog Mahoning River


By Caitlin Cook

Up stream from where Luis Velazquez regularly casts his fishing pole beneath the Liberty-Girard Bridge, the slow moving water glistens in summer sunlight as oil residue creates a thin sliver silhouette along the riverbank. Calmly flowing down stream, water disappears and rushes over one of nine remaining low-head dams along the lower Mahoning River. Just over the crest of the industry made waterfall, fishermen such as Velazquez can often be found along the banks of what former Youngstown Mayor Jay Williams categorizes as the “most grossly underused” physical asset of the Mahoning Valley.

Velazquez, 30, a native of Youngstown’s West Side has heard stories all of his life of pollutants lurking below the same waters he has fished for the past 10 years and camped along as a kid. He said he is not deterred and will continue fishing.

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YSU faculty devote careers to cleaning Mahoning River

Without hesitating, Lauren Schroeder, trudges into the Mahoning River warning that what was seeping into his weathered, once white tennis shoes is “nasty stuff.”
Knee high in water, with a fishermen’s hat atop his head, Schroeder, a retired professor of evolution and ecology at Youngstown State University, said he has been testing and monitoring the water of the Mahoning River for decades.
“In the 1960s, there was an environmental movement that was just awakening and a big press for environmental organizations, environmental studies and cleaning up the environment. I got caught up in that,” Schroeder said.
Schroeder and several of his YSU colleagues have spent decades studying the polluted river and trying to develop solutions for it.
More than 30 years after Schroeder’s work with the river began, however, the Mahoning River remains highly polluted despite collaborative efforts from river clean up enthusiasts.
In a study designed by Schroeder, YSU researchers want to identify unique algae organisms called diatoms thinking that they could help identify the most polluted areas of the river. that they could serve as a natural cleaning agent. (diatoms are not natural cleaning agents, rather they reflect the quality of the environment in which they live.) The sea shell-like diatoms naturally secrete a cell wall that is like glass, which acts as a barrier and allows diatoms to preserve themselves. There are more than 300 types of diatoms found throughout the Mahoning River.
“Each one has a particular set of environmental conditions where it grows the best in, and these conditions are different for each of these diatoms. So, if we go look at the diatoms that are present and we know what conditions they prefer, we can judge the quality of the river based on the computation of these diatom communities,” Schroeder said.
Schroeder will continue to survey the diatom populations below and above dam sites to measure the effects dams have on the diatom communities. He is hopeful the dams along the river will be removed and his study will then be able to research the effects of dam removals on diatom communities.
Scott Martin, chair of YSU Civil Engineering, said many at YSU have been attracted to studying the river.“The Mahoning is unique in that is highly polluted and has been for decades. There’s been a lot of study into the possibility of cleaning it up but that has kind of fizzled out to some extent due to government bureaucracy.”
He acknowledged it would be a long process to get the river clean, and he joked he may be gone by then. Regardless he is still conducting research and is hopeful one day the river will be clean. Martin first became involved with the Mahoning River watershed basin more than 27 years ago.
Martin and a graduate student work with Schroeder’s research to prioritize dams for removal in an effort to restore the river’s natural flow.
“That decision will ultimately be made by the regulators, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, who would need to provide permits for any dam removal,” Martin said.
Meanwhile in the biology department, Carl Johnston is working on sediment remediation. The study looks to identify the indigenous bacterium that lives within the contaminated sediments and apply what they learn to a cleanup.
“Once we work with the organisms we may be able to add either oxygen or some other nutrient or amendments that will stimulate the native bacteria,” he said.
Johnston said there’s going to have to be a lot of testing to find the optimal way of treating different parts of the river because of the differences in pollution levels and types.
“We should be doing small scale testing, chemical testing and then knowing what is in a particular site, you would decide how that should be treated.”

A river that was choked by pollutants for decades remains even further strangled by multi-government finger pointing that has resulted in the expenditure of millions of dollars on suggestions, but little action.

A $500,000 federally sponsored study conducted by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 1999 determined regardless of recent water quality improvements, the Mahoning River cannot be expected to be restored until the contaminated sediments are addressed.

The river remains a threat to public health. The Mahoning River, one of the most polluted waterways in America, is so contaminated that in 1988, the Ohio Department of Health issued a Health Human Advisory on the lower 28-miles of the river warning against contact with sediments and fish consumption.

Despite years of conversation and study and promises of funding and support, the Mahoning River is no closer to clean today than it was 30 years ago when companies stopped dumping millions of pollutants into the river each year.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineer study said that as recently as 1977, the average net discharge from the nine major Mahoning Valley steel plants exceeded 400,000 pounds per day of suspended oils, 70,000 pounds per day of oil and grease, and 800 pounds per day of zinc.

The report further states, “to put these numbers in perspective, the million gallon Monongahela River Ashland oil spill of 1988 was characterized as one of the most severe inland oil spills in the nation’s history. However, by comparison, the much smaller Mahoning River chronically received the equivalent of more than four Ashland oil spills every year for decades.”

Another federally funded $3.5 million feasibility report explored methods to extract and remediate contaminated sediments, while ultimately restoring the natural river ecology. The report called for hydraulic and mechanical dredging of 750,000 cubic yards of in-river and riverbank contamination, and the removal of seven low-head dams. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers can do neither.

Bill Decicco, who retired in August 2008 as executive director of Castlo Inc., spent much of his 20-year career as the leader of the economic development agency for Poland Township and the cities of Campbell, Struthers, Lowellville and Coitsville. He always thought that the Mahoning River would be cleaned up in his lifetime and then would be a great asset for the communities he served.

“If you were here in 2005 and said, ‘Bill, well what do you think about cleaning up the Mahoning River?’ I’d say, ‘Well 2005 we finish up this study and by 2017, 2020 at the latest, we’ll have a clean river.”

Decicco is not the only one who thought the river would be cleaned in his lifetime.

Youngstown Mayor Charles Sammarone, who has been involved in city government for 28 years, said he is no longer optimistic about chances for a clean up. “It’s been talked about for almost 40 years,” Sammarone said in a recent interview. “Everyone is in favor of doing it, it’s just how do you fund it?”

Sammarone’s predecessor, former Mayor Williams was also stumped on how to allocate funds.

Millions of dollars and thousands of hours have already been spent studying the pollution and the cancer-causing toxins buried in the riverbanks, and developing plans for how to fix the problems. Suggested methods have never progressed beyond the documentation to actual work. Clean up of the Mahoning River has been stalled in Phase II of the feasibility study.

Eastgate Regional Council of Governments became involved as the community sponsor in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers feasibility study bearing half of the financial burden. Rachel McCartney, of EastGate, says the river falls under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and that is where the clean up funds were initially going to originate.

“Involving a federal agency such as the Corps has its positive and negative sides. Of course, we are now experiencing the negative side – a stalled project,” McCartney said.

Officials offer varying explanations for why the cleanup has stalled: disagreements about the proper approach to development, weak environmental laws, timid political leadership, and people unwilling to demand action. The major stumbling block, however, is who should pay for the estimated $150 million project.

U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan of Niles, D-17th, said the factories that polluted the river, including many now-defunct steel companies, are legally responsible. He said that it is unlikely to be able to collect from them or from the companies that took over their former locations.

Ryan said the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers cannot do any dredging because of Congress’ “CERCLA” regulations, which operate on the premise that the polluter pays.

Ryan does not agree with those regulations,  “It would risk causing existing businesses on the Mahoning River watershed to be held liable for millions of dollars of clean up costs that some businesses inherited. The outcome could mean job losses, or even bankruptcy, for businesses already struggling to survive in these difficult economic times.”

Williams believes no one has tried to collect from any of the former companies, but he said he would support such efforts. U.S. Steel, with headquarters now in Pittsburgh, is the only company still in existence that once operated along the river.

“I would think it’d be highly improbable, if not impossible, for the local communities to go after these polluters. This is a federal issue,” Williams said.

In an interview while he was still mayor, Williams listed the cleanup of the river among the top 10 priorities for the city, but realized that little or nothing is happening to advance the effort.

“If the Mahoning River were clean and navigable, there would be more development in downtown,” he said, explaining that bodies of water attract people.

Williams isn’t sure if the river will ever be clean enough for recreation. “I’m always hopeful,” he said. “But it is a difficult and tedious process.”

Allison Preiss, press secretary for U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, said the Ohio lawmaker is committed to helping the effort. “Having clean and functional waterways is important for many communities in Ohio – Youngstown included,” she said. “Senator Brown is monitoring the clean up situation for the Mahoning River and stands willing to assist the Valley for anything that can be done on the federal level to contribute to that effort.”

Preiss, however, declined to discuss whether Brown would support measures to go after the original polluters. She also failed to answer questions regarding who is responsible for the clean up, but said, “for attaining federal funds through the Army Corps, senators/congressman can make a request during the appropriations process of the president can list the project in his budget, this typically implies that the Corps thinks the project is a priority.”

The contamination stems from years of long-idled steel and other industrial companies dumping waste into the river and using the water from the river for cooling products they manufactured.

Although steel companies have long since shuttered their operations in the Mahoning Valley, the toxic remnants they left have already survived more than 30 years. Without serious and sustained efforts to remove them will likely be here for decades to come, Decicco said.

A series of low-head dams trap sediment polluted with organic chemicals and heavy metals, holding the river hostage to years of industry.  The suggested dredging of 750,000 cubic yards of contaminated in-river and riverbank, with the removal of low-head dams would restore the rivers natural flow and ecology.

The Ohio EPA monitors, “chemical, biological and physical conditions within streams and rivers in Ohio,” according to Mike Settles of the Ohio EPA. The Mahoning was most recently studied 2006 to 2007 along the upper region located upstream from the Leavittsburg dam. The lower Mahoning was studied in the 1980s and 1990s, and a new study will be conducted in 2012.

Williams said the problem is that no one appears to be leading the cleanup effort despite the fact that there are several organizations chartered for such a purpose and people who draw paychecks for the work.

Daniel Mamula, who was hired in 2009 as the manager of the Mahoning River Corridor Initiative, said he believes that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers – the federal agency that conducted the studies of the river – is supposed to be coordinating and leading the effort to find funding for the project.

Carmen Rozzi, the initial project manager for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, says that’s not his agency’s job.

Instead, he says it is up to Congress to decide if it wants to allocate funding for the project.

“For federal involvement, a federal agency needs ‘two acts of Congress’ in order to accomplish anything,” Rozzi said. “Any federal agency needs authority to accomplish the mission then must seek the appropriations. At the Corps, we thought Section 312(b) Removal of Contaminated Sediments for Environmental Restoration within Navigable Waters was the authority, however it is missing much of what we need and is not a good fit for our effort.”

Mamula, the former mayor of Struthers, said that his agency is working to lure companies to locate businesses along the river. Since the initiation of the corridor initiative, utilizing grants from the Clean Ohio Fund and the Federal Brown Field program, 450 acres of brown field sites development is either remediated or under the process of being cleaned, and of that, 125 acres of brown fields meet commercial or industrial standards in the various communities along the Mahoning River.

“We want to do this business development as well as recreational, environmental and trying to keep that balance is really tough because the pressure is on for job and business,” Mamula said.

Lori Jordan, 43, of Austintown doesn’t fish the Mahoning but enjoys the tranquilly she finds along its banks.

“If they were to clean up the river, it would at least give people some positivity and hope. You know what, we are finally cleaning up the area. We can go somewhere that’s not real costly that you can relax and enjoy the day,” Jordan said.

Mamula is skeptical the river will ever be fully clean but believes sections will be addressed.

Mamula acknowledged Trumbull County is naturally ahead of recreational development with Packard Park and Perkins Park, in addition to bike trails and easy river access. Riverbanks in Mahoning are steep and difficult terrain, inevitably increasing recreation project price tags.  Mamula would like recreation development near the Covelli Center such as a bike path.

Despite the contact ban, Mamula said he does not understand why the river cannot be used for casual recreation now. He said the contact ban has not stopped people from boating or fishing on the river and he is not sure that it should. “People are using the river more and more,” Mamula said.

Williams, however, said he would hate to see too much time or money spent on developing recreational areas until the water is deemed safe.

Williams also said that companies that launch operations along the river might have to move if the cleanup and dredging effort is ever launched because dredging will involve bringing in large pieces of machinery and having plenty of space to navigate.

“The concern would be, we’d locate businesses right there on the banks, and the business says, ‘hey, it’s fine, it’s great,’ then three years later, we get this project rolling. All of the sudden boy that needed to be a staging area for the equipment or for the material that’s dredged and now we’ve got a business in an area that doesn’t make sense for cleaning the river.”

Mayor Sammarone, however, said he welcomes business along the banks of the Mahoning, ”you come in here with a business, we’ll bend over backwards to get you here,” he said.

Williams’ concerns about the direction of the corridor initiative are representative of much of the discussion that has surrounded the cleanup project. One person or organization wants to move one direction; another has a different vision; nothing happens.

Several groups and projects continue to push the cleanup and are receiving local and federal funding as well as private donations to sustain work related to the Mahoning River.

For instance, Mamula’s Mahoning River Corridor Initiative received an $80,000 grant from the Ohio Department Of Development to fund a feasibility study, “to establish a regional urban economical development and brown field revitalization plan.”

The Mahoning River Corridor Initiative also netted $15,000 from three non-profit organizations: $18,000 from nine participating communities, $5,000 from the Urban Universities Program and  $57,000 from the Fund for Our Economic Future to fund, “the design and implementation of an interactive web site to market selected corridor properties regionally and nationally,” Mamula said.

The creation of this organization brings the count to at least seven of the number of organizations devoted to the Mahoning River.

Other organizations who spend time or money working on development or clean up of the Mahoning River are the Mahoning River Consortium, Mahoning River of Opportunity, Mahoning River Corridor Mayors’ Association, Eastgate Regional Council of Governments, CASTLO, Youngstown-Warren Regional Chamber of Commerce and Commonwealth.

Rozzi said it’s very doubtful the Mahoning River will be cleaned if the funds cannot be allocated for the proposed cleanup project. However, the Department of Justice was successful in prosecuting an insurance agent of a former polluter and has provided the Ohio EPA with approximately $1.3 million of what would be considered non-federal funds for this effort Rozzi said.