By Saharsh Satheesh
Published 11:40 EST, Monday September 6, 2021
River pollution and water pollution, in general, has become a major focus of the public in recent decades. In fact, just this month, a fire broke out in the Gulf of Mexico following a gas leak. These events can be environmentally destructive, and as a result, it is imperative that we find solutions to these catastrophic events.
The Potomac River has recently come under scrutiny for the increasing levels of pollution in it. About a decade ago, the river earned a D grade, a poor score that suggested high pollution levels. Over the last decade, my advancements have been made to decrease pollution and spread awareness so that the situation does not worsen to such an extreme again.
One cause of this pollution is the fact that PCBs do not break down easily, and as a result, PCBs, which have not been manufactured since 1979, still pollute the Potomac and other rivers. Polluted urban runoff is another major issue for the Potomac. A proposed solution for this was to set limits for the quantity of pollution in the river, which would reduce the amounts of sediment, nitrogen, and phosphorus deposited into the river. There are many consequences of these pollutants entering the water including overstimulation of aquatic plants, eutrophication, and reduced water flow, among a plethora of others. There have also been findings of alteration of animal hormones due to these excess pollutants. Specifically, this is caused by endocrine-disrupting chemicals. Furthermore, when there is high rainfall, sewage pipes overflow and this causes bacteria to enter the river, such as E. Coli.
Economic services that occurred on the Potomac, such as kayaking and boat tours, may reduce the increasing pollution out of the understandable fear of pollution’s harmful effects on humans. Ecological services on the Potomac attempt to spread awareness about these issues, such as Outward Bound, which educates middle schoolers on various things including service projects and river ecology.
Many solutions have been proposed and/or implemented to combat pollution. One is to plant streamside trees. These trees will be able to capture the polluted runoff. Another solution is to reduce the maximum amount of allowed urban and farm runoff to reduce the total amount of pollutants entering the Potomac.
Through all these efforts, in 2018, Potomac’s grade was increased up to a B. Unfortunately, however, it dropped to a B- in 2020. That being said, Greater awareness and efforts will aid in the journey towards increasing the Potomac’s grade.
On a summer day in 1969, a train blazed through tracks near the Cuyahoga River. As the train sped along the tracks, a few sparks from the contact between the train and track flew into the Cuyahoga River. Within minutes, the river caught on fire, although it was extinguished within the next hour. However, this brought numerous questions and concerns: why did the river catch on fire, how severe was the damage, and how can this be avoided in the future?
When the fire occurred, it was not initially a cause for concern in the community. According to National Geographic, “When fire broke out on the river again in 1969, it seemed like business as usual. ‘Most Clevelanders seemed not to care a great deal,’ write environmental historians David Stradling and Richard Stradling. ‘Far too many problems plagued the city for residents to get hung up on a little fire…The ’69 fire didn’t represent the culmination of an abusive relationship between a city and its environment. It was simply another sad chapter in the long story of a terribly polluted river.’”
However, the situation was brought to the interest of the public again following the publishing of Rachel Carson’s iconic book “Silent Spring,” which highlighted the importance of environmental conservation and exemplified the drawbacks of DDTs.
With this renewed interest in the fire, it was discovered that the cause of the fire was largely due to the pollution accumulating in the river in the decades prior to the fire. The dumping of oils and other flammable materials was at such an extreme degree that the spark from the train was able to set the river on fire. Undoubtedly, this fire was very detrimental to the organisms living in the river. That being said, there were very thorough efforts to rectify the damage done and to prevent this in the future.
According to the New York Times, “The cleanup of the river advanced on many fronts. A year before the fire, Cleveland residents voted to tax themselves an additional $100 million for river restoration. Since then, local industries and the Northwest Ohio Regional Sewer District have spent $3.5 billion to reduce sewage and industrial waste pollution, Mr. White said.”
Through these efforts, the Cuyahoga River is in the process of healing. Pollution levels have significantly decreased since the fire of 1969. These efforts have increased awareness for river pollution worldwide, and hopefully, no river reaches pollution levels of such an extreme degree again.
Saharsh Satheesh, Youth Medical Journal, 2021
“2020 Potomac River Report Card.” 2020 Potomac River Report Card | #Potomacreportcard, http://www.potomacreportcard.org/.
“2020 Potomac River Report Card.” Potomac Conservancy, potomacreportcard.org/pollution/.
Blakemore, Erin. “The Shocking River Fire That Fueled the Creation of the EPA.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 22 Apr. 2019, http://www.history.com/news/epa-earth-day-cleveland-cuyahoga-river-fire-clean-water-act.
Board, Editorial. “Opinion | The Potomac River Is Getting Cleaner. Now’s Not the Time to Take Away Funding.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 30 Mar. 2018, http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/the-potomac-river-is-getting-cleaner-nows-not-the-time-to-take-away-funding/2018/03/30/40ad4194-338d-11e8-94fa-32d48460b955_story.html.
Cooper, Rachel. “Things to Know About Washington DC’s Potomac River.” TripSavvy, http://www.tripsavvy.com/washington-dc-potomac-river-waterfront-1038693.
“CUYAHOGA RIVER FIRE: Encyclopedia of Cleveland History: Case Western Reserve University.” Encyclopedia of Cleveland History | Case Western Reserve University, 14 Jan. 2020, case.edu/ech/articles/c/cuyahoga-river-fire#:~:text=The%20blaze%20apparently%20was%20caused,hill%2C%20SE%2C%20in%20Cleveland.
Lugbill, Stephanie. “Ask the Expert: Is It Safe to Swim in the Potomac?” Potomac Conservancy, Potomac Conservancy, 6 Aug. 2018, potomac.org/blog/2018/6/19/potomac-river-swimmings-laws-regulations-washington-dc.
Maag, Christopher. “From the Ashes of ’69, a River Reborn.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 21 June 2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/21/us/21river.html.
“Potomac River Canoeing: Environmental Service Leaders.” 8-Day Canoeing Environmental Leadership Program | Outward Bound, http://www.outwardbound.org/course/potomac-river-canoeing-environmental-service-leaders/654/.
Written by Jane Recker | Published on October 29, 2020. “For the First Time in a Decade, the Potomac River’s Health Is in Decline: Washingtonian (DC).” Washingtonian, 29 Oct. 2020, http://www.washingtonian.com/2020/10/29/for-the-first-time-in-a-decade-the-potomac-rivers-health-is-in-decline/.