Environmental contrast

Robert Stanger Contributing writer

As a seasonal resident who spends a fair amount of time along the Allegheny River, I appreciated the recent column by Dave Ferry in which he expressed his high regard for the Warren environment and included sentiments expressed by the young local climate activist Storm Sivak.

It was gratifying to note that the positive public response Sivak has received from his climate change protests at the county courthouse has markedly increased. This shows that Warren residents do realize what is going on when it comes to climate change.

Others on the national and international stage have turned up the voltage on the climate change issue, including the Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg, whose “school strike for climate” was marked by 1.4 million protesters in 112 countries on March 15. A similar event is set for May 24, and Greta has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Another noted activist on this issue is former Iowa lawmaker Ed Fallon, who spoke recently at Youngstown State University. Fallon and 35 to 50 other “climate warriors” started from Los Angeles on March 1, 1914, and spent eight months walking across the country to the nation’s capital on behalf of their cause. One of their stops was Youngstown, where they stayed overnight at the Unitarian Church.

Adding a little levity to his talk at YSU, Fallon said that all that walking led to a deep hunger, especially for meat. “I salivated every time we came across a [roadkill] squirrel,” he said.

Fallon, 61, tells of their journey and his life his book “Marcher, Walker, Pilgrim,” which was published in 2018.

It was interesting to note that Ferry’s regard for the local environment was enhanced by the time he spent away from the Warren area before returning.

As a longtime resident of the Youngtown area, I am in tune with that sentiment, as the quality of the environment is markedly different between Youngstown and Warren, with the latter having a distinct advantage.

One of the main differences between the two areas is the quality of the rivers which flow through both areas.

Some 45 miles of the Allegheny River from the Kinzua Dam south are part of the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System, and to navigate any portion of this river section is to be in tune with sentiments of the early French explorers who called it “la belle riviere.”

In contrast, the 35 miles of the Mahoning River that meanders through the Warren-Youngstown area is a muddy waterway on which any boating efforts are complicated by a number of coffer dams constructed to pool cooling water for the steel mills which once lined the river.

The closure of these mills in the late 1970s and early 1980s cost the jobs of some 30,000 workers.

Before the mills closed, I used to walk across the river on the Marshall Street bridge to my job in downtown Youngstown.

The river was the color of strong coffee, and huge oil slicks, tires and toilet articles washed by. (The river also carried waste from municipal sewage plants.)

In cold weather, a huge pall of mist rose off the river as a result of its waters being used by the mills for cooling.

The mills would use as much as five times the river’s volume daily, and for three months in 1964, the river’s temperate exceeded 95 degrees.

I used to wonder how communities downstream, such as Beaver Falls, Pa., could extract their drinking water from the same waters. (In Pennsylvania, the Mahoning merges with the Shenango to form the Beaver River.)

The Mahoning is much cleaner today than it was during the decades it served as an industrial sewer, and they say that fish have returned to its waters.

But any future the river might have as a recreational waterway would seem to be impaired by all the toxic sediment that must remain on its bottom and along its shores.

The daily discharge from the Mahoning Valley’s nine mills as late as 1977 was said to exceed 400,000 pounds of suspended solids, 70,000 pounds of oil and grease and a considerable amount of ammonia nitrogen, cyanide, and zinc.

It has been reported that improving the river would require the removal of 750,000 cubic yards of toxic sediment.

Youngtown’s saving grace is of course Mill Creek Park, one of the finest municipal parks in the nation.

Just north of Youngstown lies a rather odd relic of the Mahoning Valley’s industrial past.

The 600-acre area is known as the Girard Lakes because it is located within the confines of that city of 10,000 located on the river just north of Youngstown.

Girard bought the lakes area from Ohio Water Service in1995 for $2.25 million intending to install a water filtration plant there to provide water for city residents. This idea was less than practical, since most of the entire area has an excellent water source in the nearby Meander Reservoir, and this plan was abandoned.

The area contains two lakes formed in the early 1900s by damming Squaw Creek. Water in the lakes was sluiced down to the river in dry weather when the steel mills needed more water.

The 90-acre lower lake is now mostly dry as it was drained to obviate the flood risk downstream posed by the lake’s deteriorated 45-foot-high, 450-foot long Ambursen-style concrete dam. The lake’s bottom is now covered with thick vegetation.

The 147-acre upper lake is impounded by a massive earthen dam through which water drains via a huge culvert. A contraption on the lake’s surface above controls the flow.

There was a proposal years ago to create a Girard Lakes State Park, but the idea gained little momentum. Girard did rent boats at the lakes for fishing and had a concession stand at the rental site, but this small effort toward making some recreation use of the lakes was also abandoned.

To the chagrin of the city’s present mayor, James J. Melfi, Girard has been stuck with having to pay interest on the debt it acquired in buying the Girard Lakes.

Outside of mowing the grass on the upper lake’s dam, the city very apparently does virtually nothing in terms of the property’s upkeep.

The gate to the dirt road leading down to the former boat rental site from Keefer Road hangs open, and a “Private Property” sign there is bent in half. The mile-long road down to the lake is virtually impassable due to deep mud puddles caused by ATV riders.

At the lake, only a concrete slab remains where the concession stand stood, and the site’s small boat dock is gone. Empty beer cans litter the area.

The city did get some money from timbering the woods northwest of the upper lake … which degraded the area as a potential park site. The second-growth woods are now laced with deeply rutted ATV trails.

The Girard Lakes area is a forlorn site today, one whose purpose vanished with the closure of the Mahoning Valley’s steel mills and for which little other use has emerged, unless one counts its popularity with ATV drivers.

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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