‘That’s vinegar’: The Ohio River’s history of contamination and progress made

By April Johnston

In 1958, researchers from the University of Louisville and the Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission gathered at a lock on the Monongahela River for routine collecting, counting and comparing of fish species. 

At the time, the best way to accomplish this was what’s called lock chamber sampling, or filling a 350-by-56-foot lock with river water, injecting it with cyanide and waiting for the dead fish to float to the top. Archaic, but effective. On this particular day, researchers opened the chamber to find one fish inside. One fish. It shouldn’t have been surprising, said Jerry Schulte, a biologist who managed the source water protection and emergency response team for the Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission [ORSANCO] for more than two decades.

The water is cleaner but the politics are messier: A look back at the Clean Water Act movement after 50 years

This is first in our Good River: Stories of the Ohio Series

In June 1969, a Time Magazine article garnered national attention when it brought to light the water quality conditions in Ohio: a river had literally caught fire. 

Oil-soaked debris ignited after sparks, likely from a passing train, set the slick ablaze. Local media actually didn’t spend much time reporting on the fire. This was, after all, at least the 13th time a waterway had been set ablaze in Ohio alone, not to mention river fires in Philadelphia, Baltimore and other industrial cities. Time Magazine didn’t even run pictures of this specific fire. Instead, they used stock photos of another fire that happened in the same area in 1957. 

But America in 1969 had had enough with dangerous rivers.

Man pulling off invasive species

Fewer Invasive Species Reach the Great Lakes, but Those Here Continue to Spread

Scientists, Regulators and Industry Representatives Debate if Ballast Water Treatment is an Option

More than $375 billion in cargo — iron ore, coal, cement, stone, grain and more — has flowed between Great Lakes ports and foreign nations since 1959. That’s when Queen Elizabeth and U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower christened the St. Lawrence Seaway, heralding it as an engineering marvel.  

But that series of locks, dams and channels connecting the Great Lakes to the Atlantic Ocean also carved a pathway for foreign plants and animals to wreak billions of dollars in ecological damage to the lakes. At least 80 invasive species have arrived in the ballast water transatlantic ships take in and discharge for balance. 

The round goby, which came from the Black and Caspian seas in the 1990s, gobbles up food some native fish depend upon. So do European zebra and quagga mussels, which also damage docks and boats and clog pipes and machinery, costing the Great Lakes region an estimated $500 million each year.