Susquehanna at risk from the regressive right John Watson Commentary
Last Modified: April 03. 2013 4:28PM
THE Susquehanna River is a part of my life.
As a boy I played on its banks, as an adult I wrote about its incredible power and the criminal pollution of its waters.
Rising as the outlet of Otsego Lake in Cooperstown, N.Y., and winding through Pennsylvania and Maryland into the Chesapeake Bay, the Susquehanna is an important global artery, the 16th largest river in America and second only to the Amazon River in the Western Hemisphere in the number of indigenous plant species.
It serves as an environmental barometer and a living symbol of the ravaging effects of unregulated polluters.
Its power is enormous, last year coming once again within inches of mass destruction and causing millions of dollars in damage to one of its original settlements of West Pittston. Those of us who remember the 1972 Agnes flood will never forget the full measure of its muscle.
In 1959, the Knox Mine disaster took 12 lives when the river burst into the mines, hastening the end of deep coal mining in the Wyoming Valley. In a futile effort to plug the void where the river crashed into the mines, a huge whirlpool gobbled railroad cars like rubber duckies.
When I was a boy in the 1960s in the Pittston “Junction,” where the Lackawanna River joins the Susquehanna, pollution had reached historic levels, the result of a century of coal mining and industrial dumping. Like a bad dream, I can still picture the multicolored industrial waste, the orange and purple slicks of chemicals, sitting like a poisonous soup around dead trees in the lifeless, backwater “flats” of the Susquehanna.
In my late teens, I took a canoe from Binghamton, N.Y., to Pittston, still the best weeklong trip of my life. But when I arrived at Pittston, after a beautiful flow through the Endless Mountains, the odor of contamination was sickening. I was home.
In the 1970s, it was learned by a chance testing of the Butler Mine Tunnel in Pittston that chemical companies from New York and New Jersey were illegally dumping toxic waste into the vast catacombs of the abandoned mines through illegal “bore holes” drilled conveniently close to our interstate highway system. The range of toxins being dumped, including cyanide, was frightening.
Cancer rates in neighborhoods from Pittston to Plymouth, even when adjusted for an aging population, were higher than national levels. The Wyoming Valley had become an industrial wasteland.
But in the early 1970s, a Republican president approved the Environmental Protection Agency, the hated “EPA” of the modern Republican Party. And law enforcement finally cracked the connection between corporations and organized crime that was profiting from the illegal dumping of liquid death.
Remarkably, the Susquehanna began to cleanse itself. Projects on the polluted Lackawanna worked, and the Susquehanna from Pittston southward began to come to life again.
In the 1980s, I would spend my Mondays fishing on the river, once catching a 36-inch shiny, light gray “channel cat” that looked like a shark with whiskers, and a 50-inch “muskie” that looked like something from the Jurassic. The dead river of my youth began jumping with smallmouth bass and walleye.
“Tree huggers” like me began dreaming of a day when the “shad run” would return, a journey of long forgotten fish that would swim upstream from the Atlantic Ocean to upstate New York to spawn. The “shad run” was described by native Americans, the last people to see it, as a “white wave” coming up the river, providing nourishment for hundreds of species.
In 1988 I bought a fishing boat and won a statewide writing award for a column detailing the farcical misadventure of launching it with my 10-year-old daughter into a deep, fast current in Harding. Luckily, she is still alive and the reason I reside today in Seattle, where she has made me into a grandpa.
The Susquehanna, dating back to the Mesozoic era 250 million years ago, is one of the world’s most amazing rivers. When it comes to protecting it, we should never listen to conservative cavemen who would turn back the clock. With natural gas “fracking” fast becoming a major industry, regulations should be strictly enforced, not removed.
The regressive right that denies science would do away with the EPA and all regulation, once again leaving the health of the Susquehanna River to those who would poison it for profit, a history we can not afford to repeat.