The waters of the Mahoning River may be cleaner, but are they safe?
When Lauren Schroeder first came to Youngstown State University in 1968, there were no fish in the Mahoning River. Only pollution-tolerant organisms, such as worms, could live there.
The mills used its water to cool their steel processes and then dumped it back into the river, along with truckloads of grease, oil, toxic chemicals and other waste products. That routine was repeated across all 31 miles of the lower Mahoning, from Warren to the Pennsylvania state line.
“Temperatures were so high that the people who studied the river would stuff newspapers in their boots, so it wouldn't burn their skin,” recalls Schroeder.
A 1977 report by the EPA called the Mahoning River “one of the most severely polluted streams in the nation.” But once the mills began to close in the late 1970s, the river began restoring itself.
Schroeder studied the fish that came back. In the 1990s, the bullhead catfish had tumors and lesions on them, Schroeder says, and their barbels were shortened from all the contaminants in the sediment.
“Awareness, you know, in our region has grown, and I think a lot of people are taking care of the river. I think it's healing and recovering in a lot of ways.”— YSU associate professor Colleen McLean
Schroeder is retired now, but the professor emeritus of biological sciences remains the Mahoning River’s best living expert on the river’s ecological comeback. He’s been studying it for more than 50 years. He says the health of the fish is one of the best indicators of the river’s health.
When Schroeder actively studied the fish in the 1990s, there was a ban against eating them. The ban was lifted in 2015. According to the Ohio Sport Fish Consumption Advisory, it’s now OK to eat the smallmouth bass, walleye and other fish caught in the Mahoning about once a month.
But don’t eat more than that.
“There’s still contamination in the fish tissue. It’s mostly PCBs,” he said. Polychlorinated biphenyls were chemicals used in industrial and consumer products until they were banned in 1979. “They don't break down very fast, and they bioaccumulate. And they have carcinogenic properties.”
Humans have always used the Mahoning River for their own purposes. Before iron and steel, the river powered grist mills and sawmills. For much of its history, it was a source of drinking water, even as it carried away waste from the iron and steel industries. In 1952, the U.S. Geological Survey called the Mahoning River “among the worst polluted streams in the United States.” According to the 1977 EPA report, the river was not suitable for any recreational purposes. Even in the 1990s, the sediment was still so toxic that people were advised not to touch it.
The stage was set for river restoration in 1948, with the passage of the first major law to address water pollution. But efforts to clean up the Mahoning River met resistance in the valley. When a series of amendments to the federal Clean Water Act were passed in 1972, pollution control programs and quality standards for surface water were established. These, along with the closure of the mills, placed the river on its current course toward recovery.
In terms of water quality, the Mahoning is no longer the worst of the worst, though the Ohio Health Department still advises against swimming or wading in the river from Warren to the Pennsylvania state line. PCBs and PAHs, naturally occurring chemicals in coal and gasoline, are still in the water there.
However, between 1994 and 2013, the percentage of sites that did not meet the state’s water quality standards decreased from 83% to 8%, according to a 2018 study from the Ohio EPA. The toxins left over from the river’s industrial days are still buried deep in its sediment, especially behind its dams, but other forms of pollution are the same ones facing rivers everywhere, including fertilizer runoff and biological contaminants from sewer overflows and goose and cow poop.
In a way, the Mahoning’s prospects are better than others now because of the coordinated effort to improve it. Proponents of the Mahoning River restoration plan want to tear down as many dams as possible and reconnect the river to the communities through which it flows.
“Awareness, you know, in our region has grown, and I think a lot of people are taking care of the river,” says YSU associate professor Colleen McLean, a geologist who has worked with Schroeder. “I think it's healing and recovering in a lot of ways.”
Studying the river is one way of helping it. That’s why hydrogeologist Stuart Smith spends a full day about once every quarter collecting water samples from all over the Mahoning.
I meet him at the dock near the B&O Station in Youngstown. He’s carrying a bucket with a sensor device connected to a rope and what looks like a giant remote control with a screen. When he tosses the sensor in the river, some readings appear. He monitors how cloudy the water is and how well things move through it. He takes its temperature.
“It’s indirect, but you can tell a lot from it,” he says. “If there was a spill upstream or something like that, you would sense that as being different than the baseline on the water.”
The EPA only releases reports on the river every decade or so. Smith and William Hayward, a member of his volunteer team from the nonprofit Friends of the Mahoning River, do more frequent sampling to detect long-term trends. They monitor the effects of heavy rain and other weather, and they record their observations.
After sampling the water near the B&O, they drive to the confluence of Mill Creek and the Mahoning River. It’s a beautiful spot at the base of a rocky hill under the Mahoning Avenue bridge. You can follow a rock peninsula almost to the center of the river.
Even though this place looks like a page out of Field and Stream magazine, it reeks. The sign at the top of the hill explains why. This is a Combined Sewer Overflow. That means untreated sewage drains directly into the river here, contaminating it with whatever was in the sewer. This is the way sewer systems used to be engineered.
“The people who designed these things didn’t live here,” Smith says. “They lived uphill, out of sight.”
Nothing is coming out of the pipe now, but there’s a lot of garbage nearby, and toilet paper is decomposing across the rocks beneath it. In a 2002 consent decree, the city agreed to a 20-year-plan to reduce or eliminate the discharge of raw sewage into the river, but they’re behind schedule.
I spend a few hours with Smith and Hayward as they collect samples from the river. McLean even stops by at one point. Here’s what I learn from them about the Mahoning’s water quality: it varies from day to day and from location to location. Smith recommends using your sniffer, but generally it’s safe to canoe or kayak the river anywhere.
“I wouldn’t swim in it,” Hayward adds.
“But if you get dumped over, you’re going to be all right,” Smith says. “Take a shower when you go home.”
“Don’t drink the water,” McLean says. “Bacteria from the geese, from septic.”
But isn’t that the case with just about every river in America?
McLean nodded. “Birds poop everywhere,” she says.
Back when Schroeder was studying the river in the 1990s, he focused on the fish. Better water quality should mean healthier fish.
I wonder what the fishermen think, so I ask Ronnie Pezzuolo. He’s fishing for muskie near the Mill Creek-Mahoning River confluence near where Smith and Hayward were testing the water.
Muskie, a predatory trophy fish, was nearly wiped out in streams in its native Great Lakes region by the 1940s because of pollution, channelization (including from dams) and the disruption of its spawning habitat. But the fish are back now, thanks to cleaner waters and the restocking efforts of the state’s Department of Natural Resources. Pezzuolo says he almost caught a big one, probably about 45 inches or so.
“It came right off the hook,” Pezzuolo says. “And those are, you know, they call it the fish of 10,000 casts, so they're kind of hard to catch. There's quite a few in here.”
Pezzuolo says muskie like this spot because of the fast current. They’re lazy fish, and they don’t have to work hard to get food here. It flows right by them.
He’s not sure if the removal of dams in Struthers and Lowellville have drawn more fish to the Mahoning River, but there are great places to catch muskie all along it.
“I don't think people realize how good it is down here,” he says. “Fishing is just great.”
This project was possible because of support from The Research Council of Kent State University.