Past Pollution Still Fouls Many of Today's Waterways Streams and Rivers in the United States Show Signs of Neglect That Goes Back to the Industrial Revolution

By Elizabeth Levitan Spaid, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, October 5, 1993 | Go to article overview

Past Pollution Still Fouls Many of Today's Waterways Streams and Rivers in the United States Show Signs of Neglect That Goes Back to the Industrial Revolution


Elizabeth Levitan Spaid, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


STRETCHES of the Blackstone River in central Massachusetts weave through areas of wilderness where the absence of houses and other man-made structures makes it seem like an undisturbed river far from civilization.

But the serene and idyllic setting masks the pollution below the surface and lodged in the sediment along its banks. The 46-mile-long Blackstone, whose headwaters begin in Worcester, Mass., receives effluent from the city's waste-water treatment plants. Oil from cars and other sources of urban runoff seep into the water. The river, which used to be lined with textile mills during the Industrial Revolution, is still contaminated from the dyes used at that time.

"Worcester's the bathtub, and the river's the drain, so as Worcester washes itself in the bathtub everything goes into the river," says Russell Cohen, rivers advocate for the Massachusetts Department of Fisheries and Wildlife.

While restoration efforts have improved the Blackstone significantly, it "never really has a chance to be clean because right in the very beginning of the river is where Worcester is, and the pollution is carried downstream."

Twenty-four years ago, the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland became the symbol of severely polluted rivers when it caught fire. Over the years, industries and municipalities had openly dumped chemicals, raw sewage, and other wastes into the country's waters. When the Clean Water Act was passed in 1972 the immediate mandate was to remove this visible goo from the water by stopping point-source pollution - pollution that can be traced to a specific source such as a pipe spewing factory waste. Today much of the point-source pollution has been addressed, and many rivers no longer are topped with chemical foam or run red with dyes, though past contamination from dyes still affects even relatively clean waterways such as the Sudbury River just west of Boston. (see story, right)

BUT river advocates say rivers across the United States like the Blackstone in Massachusetts are now threatened with pollution that has become more subtle and insidious.

"The rivers are apparently cleaner, but it's our viewpoint that river ecosystems are declining pretty badly," says Kevin Coyle, president of American Rivers, a river-conservation organization in Washington, D.C. Mr. Coyle says much of this degradation is caused by nonpoint-source pollution, which has become the leading source of pollution into the nation's water bodies.

Nonpoint-source pollution is loosely defined as runoff from farms, city streets, and industry. When it rains, fertilizers, chemicals, pesticides, oil from cars, and other wastes are washed into rivers and streams.

The effects are slow but cumulative, Mr. Cohen says. The runoff feeds rivers with too many nutrients, which lead to algal blooms. The blooms use up most of the oxygen, so other organisms can no longer live.

Mr. Coyle says rivers then become devoid of life, even though they may look clean. "The river ecosystems, ... the sensitive little critters that live in the streambeds are endangered, and until we can figure out how to deal with nonpoint pollution, we're not really going to save the rivers," he says. …

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