Reclaiming the River

Patricia Natali peers across the Mahoning River as it rolls by the B&O Station in Youngstown.

“This is why we’re all here,” Natali, of Boardman, said Thursday while standing with several other members of the group Friends of the Mahoning River.

The water may look inviting on this overcast April evening, but serious damage has been done just beneath its surface. After nearly a century of contamination, the 28-mile portion of the river that runs from Warren Township to the Pennsylvania line remains polluted.

For well over a decade, Natali and the group have been waiting for the federal government to fulfill promises to clean the river. Years of research have led to plenty of studies and data points but few results.

Now, the group and area officials are hoping to remedy what has been a saga of legal barriers and funding roadblocks. They’re looking to acquire a state grant for the clean-up of the Lowellville dam.

If history is a gauge, their task will not be easy.

* * *

At the height of the industrial boom, the banks of the Mahoning River were a perfect location for steel mills.

For the majority of the 20th century, the relationship between the mills and and the Mahoning Valley was mutually beneficial, but decades of pouring tons of oil, grease, heavy metals and toxins into the river eventually took its toll.

A 1977 study commissioned by the Environmental Protection Agency determined there to be 500 pounds of cyanide and 70,000 pounds of oil and grease entering the river per day.

And while many of the mills eventually closed, most of the toxins remain.

A former member of the Mahoning River Consortium, Leanne Turner explained how years of pollution continue to take a toll.

“When you look at the toxins in the sediment, including cyanide being dumped in the river, it is no wonder things are the way they are,” Turner said.

The contamination was so severe, the Ohio Department of Health issued a “human advisory” in 1988 that remains in effect for the river from Warren Township to the Pennsylvania line. This advisory cautions the public against coming into contact with river sediment or consuming fish caught in this span of the waterway.

Tessie Pollock, spokeswoman for the state health department, notes little has changed since the advisory was enacted.

“The advisory is the result of pollutants, elevated levels of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and lesser amounts of polychlorinated biphenyls,” she said. “Levels of these chemicals in the river today are still similar to 1986 when the first EPA investigations of the river water, sediment and biota were conducted.”

* * *

To address the problem, the federal government commissioned the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 1999 to begin a $500,000 study of a potential Mahoning River Restoration project. The Army Corps focused on the portion from Leavittsburg to Lowellville.

The project was to be broken down into four phases: investigation and documentation, feasibility and payment, preconstruction, and restoration.

Former project manager Carmen Rozzi oversaw the first phase and said the findings were overwhelming.

“We determined that there was federal interest to move forward and that the benefits far outweighed the costs,” Rozzi said.

The second phase began about a year later and included an additional $3.5 million feasibility study conducted by the federal government and sponsored by Eastgate Regional Council of Governments. The Army Corps estimated proper dredging of the river, along with the removal of low-head dams, would cost more than $150 million.

That’s when things began to stall. Questions weren’t just about how the project would be paid for, but who was responsible for paying for it.

“It is a 65-35 class shared endeavor,” Rozzi said. “That means 35 percent of the project must be funded in order for the federal money to go into effect.”

Congressional regulations say the polluter must pay, but most of the companies along the river are now defunct.

“We just ended up going around and around on it and we weren’t getting anywhere,” Rozzi said.

Along with funding, another issue was getting authorization to remove six dams that dot the river from Warren to Lowellville.

According to Rozzi, the dam removal is a key aspect of the cleanup effort, but amendments to the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) – which the Army Corps must abide by – do not give authorization for dam removal.

“Our headquarters finally put the nix on the plan because it didn’t spell out authorization to remove the dams,” Rozzi said.

The Army Corps indefinitely suspended work on the second phase in 2008. Rozzi said the restoration project is not dead, however.

“We are currently working with the WRDA to change the language on some of these things,” Rozzi said. “We need the authority to remove the dams and that means going through WRDA. Of course, even if that is approved, we’d still need the funding.”

* * *

The Friends of the Mahoning River are tired of waiting.

Poised to pick up where the Army Corps of Engineers left off, the group is in the running for a $2.4 million Ohio EPA grant to begin the cleanup process in Lowellville.

Their aim is to remove the Lowellville First Street dam and dredge of sediment of an estimated 40,000 cubic yards around the dam site.

Canfield resident John Kwolek, member of the group, saw other communities in Ohio using state funds for similar projects and came to the conclusion the same could be done in Trumbull and Mahoning counties.

“They had a lot of success in the Cuyahoga basin with the Monroe Falls dam removal and the Kent dam removal,” Kwolek said. “We said, if they can do it in the Cuyahoga basin, why can’t we do it in the Mahoning basin?”

Lowellville was one of 15 communities across Ohio to apply for the river-restoration grant.

“From those 15, they narrowed it down to four that would get the monies and Lowellville ranked fourth,” Natali said.

In order to receive the grant, the Lowellville dam will undergo an environmental assessment performed by the Ohio EPA. Mike Settles, spokesman for the Ohio EPA, said Lowellville’s eligibility is still under review.

“Lowellville was chosen as a possible project for our grant,” Settles said. “After we conduct the environmental assessment of the proposed project, we will make an official announcement. It is still relatively early in the process.”

The Lowellville project would also require a permit from the Army Corps.

“We’re in the planning process now.” Kwolek said. “Potentially, the construction phase could happen in the summer of 2014.”

Settles explained the community support for the project has been overwhelming.

“Unprecedented was what I was told. We received hundreds of letters about the Lowellville and drawings by the kids of the river,” Settles said. “It has really been amazing and it shows people are beginning to see this river as an asset, not a liability.”

* * *

Other along the river are watching what happens in Lowellville with great interest.

Girard Mayor James Melfi said he could see something similar happening in his city, which also has a dam.

“The state funding is something I’m looking at with a lot of curiosity and interest,” Melfi said. “I think that may be a good idea.”

A clean, usable Mahoning River is a great untapped resource for the area, Melfi said, for everything from recreation to economic opportunities.

“I could see a walking trail or bike trail going around that area and maybe those trails could lead to restaurants or a shopping area.”

“That doesn’t just go for Girard, but the whole river,” Melfi said. “It would be awful nice to boat from Warren to Youngstown. Then, you are talking docks and establishments. It could be terrific.”

Youngstown officials agree the Mahoning River is an untapped resource for the area. Charles Shasho, deputy director of public works, said they plan to explore those options in the future.

“If the funding becomes available and we could get dam removal funded, it would definitely be something great for Youngstown,” Shasho said.

Tom Smith of Girard, a member of the Friends of the Mahoning River, said if all goes well in Lowellville, the group will continue efforts in other communities.

“Youngstown and Warren are possibilities,” Kwolek said. “The goal is to make this a free flowing, clean river. We want to lift the contact ban and raise awareness so that this kind of thing happens again.”