A much-improved environment

Robert Stanger Contributing writer

I have spent most of a rather long lifetime in Northwestern Pennsylvania or nearby, and during these years the environmental changes I have witnessed in the area have been quite profound.

Almost as profound has been what the area has avoided in the form of environmental degradation due to the cancelation of a mammoth plant project, and what has happened as a result of an Erie plant’s closure.

In the immediate Warren area, the greatest change has come through the construction of the Kinzua Dam, completed in 1965, which has caused the Allegheny River to flow cleaner, more evenly, and has markedly reduced the flooding threat downstream. In 1982, 86.6 miles of the middle portion of the Allegheny River from the dam south was designated part of the National Wild and Scenic River System, and a 25-mile-long reservoir popular with boaters and fishermen extends north from the dam.

They say that the flood damages the dam prevented in 1972’s Tropical Storm Agnes well surpassed the dam’s $120 million costs. But a price tag can hardly be put on the eviction of 600 Seneca Indians from their 10,000 fertile acres of reservation land above the dam that the dam flooded and the abrogation of the Canandaigua Treaty of 1794 through which they held the land.

Also, in the Warren area, the U.S. Forest Service in 1994 purchased the 300-acre former Newbold, or Irvine Estate, thus preserving this historically significant portion of the Allegheny River Valley with its ties to early Native American habitation and to five generations of the Irvine family,

Unfortunately, the estate’s old mansion had been razed by the property’s previous owner, the National Forge in Irvine, due to vandalization.

But perhaps the most significant thing regarding the environment of Northwestern Pennsylvania is something that did not come to pass.

U.S. Steel in 1983 formally abandoned constructing a huge integrated steel mill on the 4,500 acres of property it owned along the lake east of Conneaut, most of which was in Pennsylvania. The land was acquired by Andrew Carnegie shortly before 1900, and he envisioned it as becoming the site of the “world’s largest steel mill.”

The plant would have cost $8 billion in 1970’s dollars, but it was very controversial as it would have been constructed in an area known for its orchards and vineyards and only about 30 miles upstream from the beaches of Presque Isle State Park, the state’s most popular park.

I was personally opposed to the plant, especially since I had witnessed what the discharge from the steel mills along its banks did to the Mahoning River in Youngstown, and I could well recall that when I lived in Lorain, motorists would occasionally have to turn on their headlights at noon when passing the U.S. Steel mill there due to smoke from the mill billowing over the road.

And who of a certain age can’t recall the Donora smog of 1948 that killed 70 and harmed the health of many others.

But the Conneaut plant had been the subject of very serious planning, and the Draft Environment Impact Statement on the plant prepared by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Buffalo ran to three two-inch thick volumes.

Edgar B. Speer, U. S. Steel president at the time the plant was under consideration (and who was known as the company’s “John Wayne”), said that the Conneaut site was the least problematic as the location of a new (or “greenfield”) steel mill than any other in the nation. Speer’s death in 1979 at 63 from cancer reportedly removed the impetus for the Conneaut mill.

Financial considerations doomed the mill, and today most the proposed mill property comprises the David M. Roderick Wildlife Preserve, which is also known as State Game Lands 314. Roderick, who succeeded Speer, was the company’s president in 1983 when U.S. Steel decided not to go ahead with the Conneaut mill.

Thanks to water pollution control projects along its shores, Lake Erie is much cleaner today than it was some decades ago when a swimmer could emerge from its waters bearing strands of the green algae which thrived in the lake’s excessively nourished waters and piled up along the lake’s shore. Those were the days when the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland was known for catching on fire.

Public reaction to a 1969 Cuyahoga fire that was five-stories high in some places led to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency. Between 1868 and 1952, the Cuyahoga River caught fire nine times.

During the years when I sailed a small sloop on Presque Isle Bay, one would never dream of swimming in its polluted waters.

However, in recent years there have been annual one-mile swims across the bay from Presque Isle to the Erie Yacht Club to celebrate the bay’s restoration as a result of anti-pollution measures. The swims are no longer held.

Presque Isle State Park has also been markedly improved.

After years of hit-or-miss projects to control erosion, the park’s beaches are now stable thanks to the construction of a series of stone piers, or groins.

And the park’s muddy bridle path has been replaced with an asphalt path that follows the park’s perimeter and is popular with walkers and joggers besides bicyclists. Bicycle paths have also been constructed in the area by the state along Oil Creek in and around Lake Wilhelm.

The closure of the Hammermill Paper Co. plant in Erie costs jobs, of course, but was a boon to the environment. Smoke from the plant tainted the air in Erie, and effluent from the plant turned the water in Lake Erie east of the plant frothy brown. Bark from the logs the plant turned into paper littered the shoreline in the area.

My father grew up in the area close to the plant, and in fact his grave in Lakeside Cemetery is close to the fence that separates the cemetery today from the former Hammermill property and is not far from the bank of the lake where one could look down to the east and observe foaming brown water from the plant striking the shore.

Hammermill apparently tried to gloss over the air and water pollution that stemmed from the plant. My father used to relate that he once attended a service club meeting at which a Hammermill official gave a talk in which he downplayed the effects of the plant’s discharge on Lake Erie, even going so far as to drink from a glass filled with a brown fluid which he claimed was that same effluent.

After the meeting my father said he went up to the speaker, telling him that he believed that what he had just drunk “was just whiskey,” and not discharge from the plant.

I would say that residents of Northwestern Pennsylvania today are lucky to live in a much-improved environment that is beset by a few problems.

However, there was that recent small tornado which hit Althom (where our cabin is located) and downed a number of large trees, some of which damaged several homes.

Robert Stanger has lived seasonally for over 40 years along the Allegheny River and has the stories to tell about it.

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