Ashtabula River Declared to be Recovered to Health

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Ashtabula River Declared to be Recovered to Health

Ohio’s Ashtabula River, which flows into Lake Erie, was removed from a binational list of “Areas of Concern” in the Great Lakes. This means the river was restored and has recovered from severe environmental degradation it suffered in the previous two centuries.

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced the accomplishment in August. There were 43 such Areas of Concern, or AOCs, formally designated under the 1987 Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement. Canada and the United States share five of these sites, while another 12 are solely within Canada and the remaining 26 are within the United States. Each of these toxic hotspots was determined to have at least one beneficial use impairment, or BUI, ranging from loss of habitat to unwanted algal blooms and restrictions on drinking water or fish consumption.


The IJC played a role in the establishment of AOCs in the Great Lakes when it recommended governments complete more work to deal with toxic contamination at specific sites in its 1986 Third Biennial Assessment of Progress report. Summarizing work done by its Great Lakes Water Quality Board in the years before, the IJC proposed benchmarks for Great Lakes jurisdictions with chronic contamination problems, as well as for developing criteria for cleaning up contaminated sediments in “locations of concern.” These recommendations formed the backbone for the AOC program.

The IJC Great Lakes Water Quality Board determined that the Ashtabula River was an AOC. When formal designation occurred in 1987, the site had six out of the possible 14 BUIs that needed to be resolved before it could be delisted.

The Ashtabula River’s impairments were linked to industrialization, chemical pollution in the water and sediment, and loss of natural riverbank habitat. There were restrictions on fish consumption from the river due to chemical contamination, loss of fish and wildlife habitats due to industrial development and chemical contamination of the river, a decline in fish and wildlife populations coincident with a degraded benthic (or river bottom) ecosystem, restrictions on dredging sediments in the AOC due to pollution and excessive cancerous tumors found in fish from the area.

History of the Ashtabula River AOC

For the Ashtabula River, the problems started in the 1800s with development along the lower reaches of the waterway to accommodate commercial shipping, which wiped out swaths of natural habitat. The problems intensified in the 1900s as chemical plants started opening upriver in the Fields Brook area, which the EPA  designated a Superfund site in 1993. While the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972 limited future chemical contamination, sediments from the river in the Superfund site were still there and were gradually pushed downstream toward the harbor.

“It was clear that contamination was coming down the river,” said Richard Nagle, EPA’s assistant regional counsel, whose involvement in the work on the AOC dates to the 1990s.

While the harbor was routinely dredged for shipping, the area between that and the Fields Brook area—roughly the 24th Street Bridge to Fifth Street in Ashtabula—was not being addressed, said Amy Pelka, a section chief for the EPA’s Great Lakes National Office.

Pelka also started on the AOC cleanup back in the 1990s. Pelka said the sedimentation was bad environmentally for fish populations, and also led to accessibility issues because it made it difficult to get a recreational boat onto the river. What’s more, simply dredging the sediment with all the contamination in it would have stirred it up and created new problems.


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