Watchers in Boat Eye Pittsburgh Rivers' Water Quality

Article excerpt

Ned Mulcahy was on the Monongahela River taking pictures of U.S. Steel's Clairton Works when two tugboats from the steel giant cornered his 17-foot bass boat. A third tug raced by, nearly swamping a photographer from The Pittsburgh Foundation paddling in a kayak.

Mulcahy, 30, of Lawrenceville watches over the Pittsburgh pool -- 24 miles of the Allegheny, Monongahela and Ohio rivers near the Point -- as executive director of Three Rivers Waterkeeper. The two members of the Homestead-based nonprofit group, formed last year, act like a river posse, reporting violations of the Clean Water Act to federal or state authorities. The duo can't arrest anyone but can file lawsuits against suspected violators and government agencies responsible for protecting the public.

Mulcahy remembers the company's response last month as "intimidating."

"One of our goals is to be on the water, making sure what's been permitted by a bunch of different administrative processes is actually taking place, the limits are being adhered to," he said. "We want to be, in that respect, a voice for the water."

U.S. Steel spokeswoman Courtney Boone attributed the company's keen reaction to its responsibilities under the Maritime Transportation Security Act to "investigate unusual activity" on the river. She said the company looks forward to working with Waterkeeper.

Mulcahy and fellow Waterkeeper Patrick Grenter try to be on the rivers three days a week, weather permitting. They hope to improve water quality in a region that flushed industrial waste into them for a century before environmental laws took effect.

"It's never going to taste like pure water," Mulcahy said, "but you shouldn't have to worry about getting a little in your mouth when you're out playing in it, showering after you're in it or eating the fish."

Their presence prompts questions. Members said police and a private security firm asked them for identification before allowing them to continue their work.

The Coast Guard is conducting a preliminary investigation of Waterkeeper's complaint regarding the U.S. Steel incident to determine whether any law was violated, Lt. Randy Preston said. He noted that the Clairton plant is covered by the federal Maritime Transportation Security Act, which restricts access to certain facilities.

"They can't go on the facility, but they can be in the public waterway," Preston said.

The Waterkeeper boat is equipped to measure the depth of the river and water temperature and has an underwater camera. Mulcahy and Grenter study discharge pipes and water intakes. They look for oil sheens, any discoloration of water and any foul odor. Then they return to their office to see which old factories and drainage pipes might account for the river conditions.

On a recent patrol, sycamores bowed along the banks, Canada geese honked and the bearded Mulcahy scanned the shore with a pair of binoculars and a camera ready. …