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Restoring The River Of My Childhood

After growing up in Massachusetts suburbia, I have fond memories of canoeing with my family on the town’s river, the Sudbury. Gliding along, we would keep our eyes peeled for turtles on the rocks or fish under the boat, and maybe if we were very lucky a heron drying off in the afternoon sun. Once or twice I even fell in, to the eternal frustration of my parents.

Just 20 miles outside of Boston it was possible to lose sight of the houses, forget about the cars, and assuming I wasn’t too busy yelling and splashing, it was possible to just relax. Outside of the odd swarm of mosquitoes, it’s hard to conjure up a more idyllic image; an impressive feat for what used to be considered a toxic nightmare.

Sudbury River.  (Courtesy of Appalachian Mountain Club)

Once upon a time the Sudbury was labeled one of the 10 worst toxic cleanup sites in the nation, the product of decades of mill and later corporate dumping in the river, and a serious threat to not only the natural ecosystem but the health and water supply of everyone near the river.

Mercury is still in the river bottom, as well as in the fish.  (David Riley)

Beginning in the early 20th century, the company Nyanaza began using mercury and other chemicals to treat clothing dyes, and pouring the resulting waste into ponds or an underground vault, or simply burying the mess in drums on their property. Anywhere from 45 to 57 tons of this sludge ended up in the river.

By the 1970’s it was clear just how badly the river was polluted. The state had found mercury in the water, at more than 20 times the legal limit. So how can I go swimming there today? Thank the now 40-year-old Clean Water Act for that. With the ambitious goal of making all of the nation’s waterways “fishable and swimmable”, the act stopped further pollution and helps keep the Nyanzas of the world away from the water today.

Under the act, Nyanza was forced to stop its dumping habits, and finally closed in 1978. Still, a great deal of work was left to remove the toxins in the river already. In 1983 the EPA put Sudbury River’s Nyanza site on the nationwide Superfund cleanup list. The toxic lagoons were drained, barrels were removed from the vault, and by 1999 Congress could even call the Sudbury “wild and scenic."

A blue heron, on the banks of the Sudbury River.  (Betsy Moyer)

But, while I can now swim in the Sudbury, my town river still doesn’t meet Clean Water Act standards. While no longer threatened by something as blatant as mercury dumping, the river’s health is continuously threatened by runoff from lawn products and other forms of human activity. Mercury is still in the river bottom as well as in the fish, and all those agriculture products are the perfect food for algae blooms, potentially threatening the whole river’s ecosystem.

Nor is this is an unusual issue; rivers across America struggle against similar threats, reminding us that a strong Clean Water Act is the best defense. It’s something to think about as we watch relentless attacks by the current Congress on the nation’s water regulations. We need to strengthen, not destroy, the Clean Water and Superfund acts. If we can keep the laws firmly in place, I believe that a century from now, Americans will still be happily paddling down rivers like the Sudbury.