Abuse of the Mahoning River: How Polluted Is It?
There is a contact
ban (swimming, fishing, or wading) along the industrialized zone of
to Lowellville) due to the severity of hazardous material found in
the sediment. It was
issued because this river was “an industrial sewer” for many
decades and, during that time, experienced an unbelievable amount of
use/abuse for a river of its size.
To better understand
the need for the
ecological restoration project (also known as the dredging project)
it is important to know what the contamination is (specifically) and
the impact of it on the ecosystem.
Additionally, it is useful to know why it was so badly
abused: what reasoning
was given for this and what efforts were made to stop it.
For years the Mahoning River endured a history of industrial
and municipal waste that was not viewed as a problem for many
residents and businesses of the area—because the steel mills were
providing thousands of jobs for people and that was seen as more
important than the condition of the river.
Not until the residents of Beaver,
complained about the pollution in the 1960s to the federal
government was there any real debate about the need for cleanup (the
community of Beaver was receiving the daily pollution because they
were downriver from the steel mills).
Since that time, the
effects of pollution have become better understood. The decision to
was made by the federal government—which has charged the US Army
Corp of Engineers with that responsibility.
It is an enormous and complicated undertaking.
(To learn more about the ecological restoration project, see Mahoning
Become Contaminated and What is the
During the 19th
century, raw sewage and industrial waste went directly into the
. During the 20th
century, the steel mills became a mammoth industry along the river
banks, pouring tons of oil, grease, heavy metals, and toxins into
the river, while raw sewage from households and businesses continued
to go into the river untreated until 1965 (when a sewage treatment
plant was built).
A statistic from the
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reveals how much pollution our
river was enduring: In
1977, when all nine major steel mills were running, the following
toxins were being poured into the river:
So, the list of
contaminants in our river includes heavy metals (mercury, lead,
zinc, copper, cadmium, silver and iron), grease, oil, organic
compounds, PCBs and PAHs, pesticides, other organic
toxins and carcinogens. Many
of those substances were flushed downstream to the Beaver,
, and possibly to the
Gulf of Mexico
. Some of those toxins
settled in the sediment at the bottom of the river, and especially
at the 10 “lowhead dams” that the steel industries built
on the river to create larger “pools” of water to draw from.
The water was drawn from the river and used to cool the hot
machinery and steel, and then was poured back into the river at over
100 degrees Fahrenheit. The
industrial practice of pouring hot toxic water, oil and grease into
the river changed dramatically when most of the steel mills shut
down in the late 1970s.
- 400,000 pounds per day of suspended solids
- 70,000 pounds per day of oil and grease
- 9,000 pounds per day of ammonia-nitrogen
- 800 pounds per day of zinc
- 600 pounds per day of phenolics
- 500 pounds per day of
“Toxic” or “Hazardous” is the
Water & Sediment?
What levels of toxicity are
acceptable? What are the effects of the hazardous levels?
When are such substances useful for human consumption?
understand that the sediment in the river bottom is where most of
the industrial chemicals reside and, in some sections of the river,
there’s more pollution than in other sections (this is especially
true behind the 10 low-head dams that were built for the steel
industries to have reservoirs of water in front of each steel mill
complex). In comparison,
the water itself is much less impacted by the toxins because it
flows continually and—except during heavy rains—does not contain
much sediment compared with the huge amounts in the riverbed.
It is also important to understand that there are
different 'allowable" amounts of toxicity depending on what
creature you are trying to protect. For example, the Ohio EPA
has water standards to protect (1) aquatic life (fish and
invertebrates), and (2) humans that might drink water or eat fish
that live in the water.
The major pollutants of the industrialized
(Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons), PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), and heavy metals
including mercury, lead, zinc, copper, cadmium, & silver.
The following list addresses what the allowable levels are
for human and wildlife health, and how those levels compare with the
water in the
sediment in the bottom of the river.
(Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons)
from industrial grease and oils are found as a
“black mayonnaise” layer in the sediment.
While the river water itself does not contain PAHs in any
significant amount, levels in the industrialized sections of the
sediments can be 100 times more than is permitted.
biphenyls) & Heavy Metals
Below is a
"table of different allowable amounts."
The table is broken into five perspectives:
1. Allowable amounts for fish and other aquatic life; 2.
Allowable amounts in the water for human use, non-drinking; 3.
Allowable “low-effect levels”**;
4. Allowable “high-effect levels”**; and 5.
Drinking water for humans.
in the list is drinking water criteria from
water quality standards.
Note that these values are in ug/l (ppb)*** and ug/g (ppm)****.
It is an interesting exercise to compare the drinking water
standards against the water standards that protect for aquatic life.
There are some drastic differences due to different sensitivities of
aquatic wildlife and humans.
TABLE VALUES for PCBs & Heavy Metals in
Water & Sediment
life use (ug/l
or ppb)*** (water
(ug/l or ppb)***
(low effect level)**
Many of the heavy metals (all those with*) have allowable limits in
water, based on the water hardness. This report uses a
hardness of 200 for the table below (in fact, the average hardness
of the Mahoning River is somewhat less than 200, so the tabled
values would need to be a bit lower to protect aquatic life).
The state of
does NOT have sediment
standards. For the
, the Army Corps is using
are very protective and would work well in
. According to the state of
sediment criteria document,
river sediment is considered to be contaminated if either the low
effect level (LEL) or the high effect level (HEL) are exceeded.
If only the LEL is exceeded, then the impact is considered to be
"moderate". If the HEL is exceeded the sediment is
considered to be "severely impacted". Sediment
that is not considered contaminated would need to be less than the
LEL values for all chemicals of concern. All of the
sediment below the
area is considered to be
is called micrograms per liter of water. Thus it is the unit
of measurement used for a liquid. It is nearly the same as
saying (PPB) or "parts per billion".
****ug/g is a unit of measurement for sediment or a solid
material (thus how many micrograms of chemical (x) per gram of
sediment). It is nearly the same as saying (PPM) or
"parts per million".
general, what you will find is the "water" quality of the
(at most sites during dry
weather conditions) is below the allowable values. (During a
downfall of rain—especially a heavy downfall—the water becomes
churned up and the sediment mixes with the water, so the water would
have more of the toxic sediment in it during that time, after which
the sediment would settle back to the riverbed).
allowable levels of PCBs, PAHs, and heavy metals in the sediments,
however, they are well above the table values (allowable levels),
area down to the
state line, and beyond.
Description of Contamination Impact on
Wildlif e & Plant Life
Lauren Schroeder professor emeritus, YSU Biology
“The contaminants have caused marked reduction of
river animal and plant life. Many
of the fish show symptoms of toxic sediments.
They have deformities, eroded fins, skin lesions and tumors.
The toxicity (carcinogenicity) of the sediments has prompted
the Ohio Department of Health to issue an advisory against contact
with the sediment. (See contact ban).
Some of the chemicals in the sediments enter and are stored
in the fish that live in the river.
Because of the potential health hazard of eating the fish
from much of the lower river, the Department of Health has also
included an advisory against eating the fish caught in the
from Leavittsburg to the
state line. (See Fish Consumption Advisory).
Many fish no longer live in the river because the toxic
sediments kill insects and other sediment-dwelling animals that the
fish required for food. The
fine sediments themselves are unsuitable for many animals and they
cover more desirable substrates [layers of the riverbed].
The many dams that impede water flow drown rapids and swift
water-runs that are required by some kinds of fish.
The sluggish water and dark silty sediments favor tolerant
species such as carp and gold fish.
In some places of the river, these are the dominant kinds of
fish. The carp root in
the muddy sediments increasing water turbidity [amount of sediment
floating in the water] and decreasing the suitability of the river
for other kinds of fish. The
combination of toxic sediments, fine silty substrates, and
undesirable pollution-tolerant fish species has impoverished the
fish and other fauna of the river.”
(See “Fish Facts” to learn
more about the current and historical fish population of the
Description of the River’s Condition by the US Army Corps
Ecological Restoration Reconnaissance Study”, US Army Corps of
Engineers, Pittsburgh District, May 1999.)
Environmental Protection Agency Region V (Amendola, et al.) reported
the average net discharge from the nine major Mahoning River valley
steel plants exceeded 400,000 pounds per day (lbs/day) of suspended
solids, 70,000 lbs/day of oil and grease, 9,000 lbs/day of
ammonia-nitrogen, 500 lbs/day of cyanide, 600 lbs/day of phenolics,
and 800 lbs/day of zinc. The
oil discharge was equivalent to over two hundred 55-gallon barrels
per day, or the equivalent energy to heat nearly 30,000
average-sized homes. 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
chronically received the equivalent of more than four
oil spills every year for decades.
Current levels of oil seeping into the
are a minute fraction of the historic quantities.”
uncontrolled industrial era residue throughout the lower reach of
has resulted in the degradation of the aquatic ecosystem and has
become a threat to public health.
With the construction of low-head water supply dams
[for the steel industries] along the mainstem, an
oil/silt/contaminant mixture of almost pudding-like consistency was
trapped behind the dams.” (ES-3)
sediments are the primary limiting factor hindering the biologic and
aquatic recovery of the river and must be removed if biological
improvement is to be expected. There
are approximately 462,000 cubic yards of contaminated riverbed
sediments and 286,000 cubic yards of contaminated material along the
Attitudes Toward the
During the Steel Mill Era
Lauren Schroeder, professor emeritus, YSU Biology.
(This excerpt is taken from
his presentation to the Mahoning Extension Outreach Program, 1999.)
“…in 1966, the federal government through the auspices of
the Department of Health, Education and Welfare (HEW) called a
conference in Youngstown on the condition of the Mahoning River.
The recently enacted Federal Water Pollution Control Act
required intervention of the federal government when interstate
waters were sufficiently polluted to threaten the health of
residents in adjoining states. The
at this time was grossly polluted.
“Steel was supreme in the Valley.
Between Warren and the [
] State Line, a distance of about 30 miles, there were 16 blast
furnaces and 31 primary steel processing plants, rolling mills,
pickling facilities, coke plants, and electroplating facilities.
During this stretch of the
up to seven times the low-flow river volume was used for industrial
“I recently reread
the transcripts of this conference.
Participants in the conference included elected governmental
officials, directors of state and county health boards, industrial
spokespersons, and others who had interest in the water quality of
. Much of the testimony from state and local governmental officials
as well as from industrial representatives was devoted to protesting
the intervention of the federal government into what was perceived
as a local or, at best, a state issue.
And, furthermore, although the participants agreed that the
was polluted, they denied any health threat or even significant
water degradation in
presented that the river was not effectively polluted because it was
not intended to be used for fishing or other recreational purposes.
If it was fishing that you desired, go to one of the many
reservoirs that were constructed on the
in order to assure a constant supply of water for industry.
One leading politician argued:
‘The Mahoning River is not polluted because it carries away
the waste from industry, thereby providing jobs for the community
and serving the best interest of the public.’
“The value placed
at that time was directly economic, i.e.: the value to industry by
carrying away the waste from industry and the cities along its
banks. If the
federal government intervened and required both industry and
domestic pollution abatement, this would increase the cost of doing
business, which, at best, would increase the price of steel, and
decrease the profits from the steel industry of the
Valley. Or, at worst, would be too costly for the steel industry and it
would simply close.
“The costs of complying with the federal government
standards included pollution abatement in industry (tens and perhaps
hundreds of millions of dollars) and pollution abatement by
municipalities (another tens and perhaps hundreds of millions of
“The perceived benefits included: reduced nuisance odors at
water treatment plant. Perhaps
a few fish in the mainstem of the
, but certainly not of any significant economic value, particularly
when contrasted to the multi-billion-dollar steel industry.
The correct decision in this matter was plain.
Pollution abatement should go slow, the federal government
should butt out.
“The governmental position was that the polluted
posed a significant and persistent threat to the health of people
using the river downstream from the
“Although the debate was intense, those holding opposing
views had the same objectives in mind:
how to provide the highest quality of life for the citizens
Valley, the State, and the country. One
side held that industry and the jobs that industry provided took
precedence over minor inconveniences like water pollution.
Others held that water pollution was so severe as to pose
significant health hazards, shortening life expectancies and thus
depriving people of the essential ingredient for a quality
Other facts about the pollution of the Mahoning
In an early study of the river (1964), the water
temperature was tested and for more than 90 days it was at/above 95
degrees. One member of
the Mahoning River Consortium has said that in his lifetime,
until the mills closed, he never saw the river freeze.
He lives in the Struthers area, downstream from the heavily
If all the contaminated sediment in the
was put into boxcars, it would form a train 38 miles long.
||Until the mid-1960’s, there were virtually no
requirements to stop pollution and, therefore, none on the
. There were no sewage
treatment plants for the major towns along the river until 1965, so
raw sewage from over 600,000
residents flowed freely into the river, along with 7,000 gallons of
industrial oil, etc…
This fact sheet answers the most frequently
asked health questions about polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs).
US Environmental Protection site regarding the
’s pollution by General Electric and the PCBs in
Extension Fact Sheet on PCBs. http://ohioline.osu.edu/cd-fact/0201.html
Chemical analysis of PAHs.
This fact sheet answers the most frequently asked health
questions about polycyclic hydrocarbons (PAHs).
Environmental Protection Agency alphabetical listing &
links to all toxins and pollutants.
Ohio Environmental Protection Agency “Mahoning River Tech
Support Manuals, Volumes I & II, 1996”; volume I is available
The Ohio Department of Health 1954 report: Report of Water
Pollution Study Mahoning River Basin.
YSU Master Thesis
from 1952 by Barna or Volk. It
is called: An Analysis of the Pollution Content of the
from its Source to its Outlet. It
is from the Engineering Department at YSU.
report of the pollution was by the US Department of Health,
Education, and Welfare (1965). It is called: “Report on the
Quality of Interstate Water-Mahoning River.”
These reports were written before the federal and state
Environmental Protection Agencies were formed.
EPA has reports from 1970s about
Army Corps has many historical
documents regarding the Mahoning
Ohio EPA has 1986 and 1994 reports.