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WKSU News marks the 50th anniversary with the series, Watershed.

Watershed: Decades of Dedication Cleaned a Poisoned Ashtabula River

Rivers in northern Ohio have long been conduits of industry, linking onshore factories to Great Lakes shipping and beyond.

This industrial legacy spurred economic growth, but it also left the region’s waterways poisoned by unregulated pollution.

And one of the hardest hit rivers was the Ashtabula, in Ohio’s far northeast corner.

In this installment of our series Watershed, WKSU’s Jeff St. Clair reports the cleanup of the Ashtabula took decades of dedication and became a model for environmental cooperation.

Patricia Seymour grew up in Ashtabula in the 1960’s. We’re meeting in the city’s bustling harbor. It’s a bright spring day, but she recalls a childhood landscape more reminiscent of the Lord of the Rings…

“It was like Mordor," says Seymour, describing the more than a dozen chemical plants concentrated near her east side neighborhood.

More than a dozen chemical plants were concentrated near her east side neighborhood…

“There would be flames coming out of the top of towers. There would be smoke that was coming out, they were burning off as well as emitting… and there would be a lot of trucks and the feel of industry…”

There would be flames coming out of the top of towers. There would be smoke coming out, and there would be a lot of trucks and the feel of industry.

Chlorine and other chemical smells filled the air, says Seymour, “and also then it went into a taste – I tasted it in my mouth.” 

Those chemicals also flowed into the water.

While the Cuyahoga burned, the Ashtabula slowly filled with a toxic goo.

A legacy of toxic sludge
The harbor is also where I meet Frank and Fred, two people who tackled the mess.

Frank Lichtkoppler is a retired professor at Ohio State University who worked with the Ohio Sea Grant program. Fred Leitert is a retired manager of a local chemical plant, and a dedicated community activist.

Both worked for decades to clean up the river.

Fred takes us on a tour of the Ashtabula, beginning with a marina about mile upriver from the harbor where he says the problems started. 

“If you look over by where those boats are," he says pointing to a spot on the opposite bank, "that’s where Fields Brook comes in.”

Fields Brook happens to flow past the cluster of chemical plants on Ashtabula’s east side, and in the decades before environmental regulations, those companies dumped thousands of gallons of toxic waste into it.

In 1986 the U.S. EPA named Fields Brook a Superfund site, meaning it was among the most polluted sites in America.

And over the years, a thick layer of toxic sludge flowing from Fields Brook had settled on the bottom of the Ashtabula River.

Restoring an unusable river
The first step in environmental restoration of the Ashatabula River included a ban on open water dumping of contaminated sediment.

And Leitert says that created a problem. “The sediment kept building and building and they couldn’t dredge it, because it was so polluted.”

Lichtkoppler says the sediment buildup also began hampering the movement of coal and ore shipments on the river.  “They had to load light," he says, "they couldn’t take a full load because it was shoaling up so much.”

He says people in Ashtabula - boaters, shippers, everyone became fed up with an unusable river. 

“We organized a remedial action plan council here, local citizens, and got active, voicing opinions and trying to get organized and letting folks know that we were very interested in cleaning up the river.”

They also formed the Ashtabula River Partnership, a group of 50 organizations, the U.S. and Ohio EPAs, an alphabet soup of other agencies, citizens and businesses, all led by the local port authority.

Lichtkoppler says it was the first time in the U.S. that such a partnership had worked together in this way to solve a complex pollution problem.

“These agencies had never worked together before, these ideas had never been put together in this way before, these public officials had never done this before.”

The plan was to rid the river of its toxic sediment, and finally in 2006, after two decades of cleanup at Fields Brook, it was time to dredge the Ashtabula.

Leitert says a total of 650,000 cubic yards of contaminated sediment were taken out of the Ashtabula River and buried under 19 acres of soil in a specially built landfill. The price tag was around $85 million.

The partnership approach to pollution mitigation has become a modelfor environmental cooperation.

The road ahead for the Ashtabula
Fred insists we make one more stop, up to Point Park overlooking Ashtabula harbor.

It’s a great view of the history-filled, industrial port town below us.  “This is called Pinney dock," says Leitert, indicating channels carved into the shoreline, "a lot of ships come in here to load and unload.”

A graceful coal chute arcs over the harbor. We see mounds of coal and gravel, a ship yard, and in the distance a new, half-a-billion dollar pig iron plant being built, the first of its kind in the country.

After more than three decades working to clean the Ashtabula from industrial pollution, Leitert is happy to see the activity, and has faith that this generation of heavy industry can co-exist with a healthy waterway.

That is, he says, as long as everyone agrees that poisoning the river can never be allowed again.

Meanwhile, Fields Brook is in the final stages of delisting as a Superfund site, which could happen soon.

And the Ashtabula?  The water flows clean. Fish have returned. But Lichtkoppler and Leitert say regulators are still waiting for more data before declaring a complete recovery.

Jeff St. Clair is the midday host for Ideastream Public Media.