The Lehigh Riverfront could be a model for Youngstown revitalization.
By Britta Snowberger
Special to The Vindicator
In 1989, the Exxon Valdez tanker ran aground, spewing approximately 10.9 million gallons of crude oil into Prince William Sound off the coast of Alaska. Considered the largest spill to date in U.S. waters, the disaster expelled the same amount of oil into the water that the Youngstown steel mills drained into the Mahoning River every three years.
In operation for nearly 80 years, these local mills contaminated the Mahoning River and its adjoining banks to a nearly irreversible extent, forcing the Ohio Department of Health to issue a contact ban — forbidding fishing, swimming and wading — on the city’s central watercourse.
“There’s been a contact ban in effect from the Leavittsburg Dam to the Pennsylvania state line since 1988,” said Matthew Stefanak, department head of the Mahoning County Board of Health. “With residual contaminants stuck in the sediment of the river, the public health concern is for those who inadvertently come in contact with that sediment.”
While the steel industry diminished the water quality in Youngstown, mills near Allentown, Pa., dumped similar pollution into the eastern city’s major river. Comparable because of their populations and major manufacturers, these midsize cities experienced adverse environmental effects long after the decline of the steel industry.
In Allentown and its neighboring cities, the Lehigh River has been restored, drawing fishers, boaters and outdoors enthusiasts to Allentown.
“The Lehigh River is used for a lot of recreation, like fishing, whitewater rafting and canoeing,” said Alec Bodzin, associate professor at Lehigh University and core faculty member of the Lehigh Environmental Initiative. “It’s a big tourist attraction, and even river outfitters do good business.”
Across state lines, river utilization seems a lofty goal in Youngstown. Although most of the Mahoning River’s toxins have washed downstream, hazardous levels of pollution remain in its sediment. People are still discouraged from swimming or fishing in the river.
“The water in the Mahoning River has basically cleaned itself up,” said William DeCicco, chairman of the Mahoning River Consortium and executive director of CASTLO Industrial Park in Struthers.
“However, with nine steel mills, in addition to raw sewage and other treatment plants lining the river’s banks for three-fourths of the 20th century, a large number of materials accumulated in the sediment.”
To remove this dangerous sediment, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers developed a four-phase plan, the Mahoning River Ecological Restoration Project, for the waterway. Culminating in complete river reconstruction, the project would last for 20 years and cost about $100 million.
Footing 65 percent of the bill, the federal government left the remaining $35 million cost for the state of Ohio and communities along the Mahoning River.
Considering a clean river’s recreational opportunities and economic possibilities, DeCicco believes that local money invested in the dredging project will eventually make its way back to the Mahoning Valley.
“The local costs would be phased in over 12 or so years, bringing them down to something affordable,” said DeCicco. “According to cost-benefit analysis, the project will bring people downtown and to the riverbank, and the city will get its money back. You have to look at [the restoration project] as an investment.”
Currently, however, the dredging project is at a standstill in its second phase, “feasibility.” During this phase, the corps will investigate restoration methods and proposed costs and determine who is responsible for paying for the project.
DeCicco estimates that 99 percent of the feasibility study is complete.
“Due to federal regulations, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has to go after those who have contributed to the contamination for cleanup costs,” he said. “It’s an exercise in futility, because most of the companies are long gone, bankrupt or just don’t exist anymore.”
Although the restoration is already behind schedule, DeCicco feels confident that the project will eventually advance as planned.
“[The corps] has to follow the rules and try to find [the polluters], but they’ll probably eventually proceed with the project anyway,” he said.
Because of the project’s size and price, Reid Dulberger, former president of the Youngstown Central Area Community Improvement Corporation, is skeptical that the Mahoning River will truly be repaired.
“Cost estimates from the Army Corps of Engineers will likely be higher than the original estimates,” he said. “When that number comes out, it may be problematic to engage in the cleanup.”
With or without ecological restoration, Dulberger feels that the Mahoning River can become a means of revitalization for Youngstown.
“If the river isn’t cleaned up, it still has tremendous potential,” he said. “People love being by the water, even if they can’t go in it.”
Demonstrating river commercialism possibilities, Allentown has taken advantage of the status of the Lehigh River since the demise of the steel industry.
According to Bill Derhammer, president of the Lehigh River Stocking Association, the Lehigh River is in “the best condition it has been since prior to the Industrial Revolution.”
The 2007 Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources River of the Year’s revitalized state may be in part due to the variety of the Allentown area’s manufacturing and transportation industries.
Perhaps these water quality differences are also due to the fact that a greater number of steel mills existed along the Mahoning River during the latter part of the 20th century, DeCicco speculated.
“Even though Bethlehem Steel was a huge plant, the Mahoning Valley had nine mills up and down the river, plus those in Pennsylvania,” he said.
With only one major mill having operated along the Lehigh River, the Allentown area is less concerned about river restoration.
“I don’t think there’s ever been a dredging project on the river, although there are smaller remediation projects going on,” Bodzin said. “Steel mill discharge was not much of an issue, and most past pollution dealt with the transportation of coal.”
Flowing downstream, this pollution eventually dissipated to the point that the river could safely be used for commercial and recreation purposes, appealing to people from all backgrounds and financial standings.
In addition to its recreational and economic values, the accessible river contributes to the education of the Lehigh Valley as well.
“I take my students canoeing down the river each summer, where we do water quality sampling and so forth, and the Wildlands Conservancy has a bike and boat program for students,” said Bodzin. “The river has a huge education value. Not only can people get on the water, they can get in it.”
Brownfield development is also beginning to play a part in the revitalization of Allentown and its neighboring cities.
“There are plans to turn the former Bethlehem Steel building into a casino and arts center,” Bodzin said. “A few years ago, [the Allentown area] was a graveyard. People were just waiting for something to happen. Now, we’re finally turning things around.”
For Youngstown, developing brownfields is already a means of regeneration, said Dulberger.
“This community has taken tremendous strides in the reuse of brownfield sites,” he said. “Take the Chevy Centre or Performance Place and Mahoning River Corridor of Opportunity industrial parks, for example.”
Using Allentown as a model, Youngstown could invite tourism, recreation and educational opportunities to the Mahoning River if the restoration project is completed by a projected 2020.
“Currently, Warren is doing the most to take advantage of its riverfront property, including a river walk and amphitheater, all with a contact ban in effect,” said DeCicco. “Just imagine what will happen when you can utilize a clean river.”
“Not being able to use the river certainly detracts from the aesthetic of having a water course and diminishes the quality of life,” added Stefanak.
“I can’t quantify the benefits for a riverfront for Youngstown as a tourist attraction, and although the water is cloudy, I am optimistic about the health of the river.”