Patricia Seymour grew up in Ashtabula in the 1960ss. On bright spring day at the city’s bustling harbor, Seymour recalls a childhood landscape more reminiscent of the Lord of the Rings.
“It was like Mordor,” Seymour says.
More than a dozen chemical plants were concentrated near her east side neighborhood.
“There would be flames coming out of the top of towers,” she says. “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, Seymour adds, “and also then it went into a taste – I tasted it in my mouth.” Those chemicals also flowed into the water.
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.
One of the hardest hit rivers was the Ashtabula, in Ohio’s far northeast corner.
A Legacy Of Toxic Sludge
While the Cuyahoga burned 50 years ago, the Ashtabula slowly filled with a toxic goo. Cleaning it up took decades of dedication by citizens, but ultimately became a model for environmental cooperation.
Among the people who tackled the mess were Frank Lichtkoppler and Fred Leitert.
Lichtkoppler is a retired professor at Ohio State University who worked with the Ohio Sea Grant program, while Leitert is a community activist and retired manager of a local chemical plant.
Leitert takes us on a tour of the Ashtabula, beginning with a marina about a 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. Environmental Protection Agency named Fields Brook a Superfund site, meaning it was among the most polluted sites in America. Over the years, a thick layer of toxic sludge flowing from Fields Brook had settled on the bottom of the Ashtabula River.
The first step in environmental restoration of the Ashatabula River included a ban on open water dumping of contaminated sediment. Leitert says that created a problem.
“The sediment kept building and building and they couldn’t dredge it, because it was so polluted,” he says.
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.”
Lichtkoppler 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,” Lichtkoppler says.
They also formed the Ashtabula River Partnership, a group of 50 organizations, including the federal 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 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,” Lichtkoppler says.
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 model for environmental cooperation.
Leitert 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, $500 million 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. He has faith that this generation of heavy industry can co-exist with a healthy waterway.
That is, Leitert 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.
This story is part of the WKSU series Watershed, marking the 50th anniversary of the infamous Cuyahoga River fire.