Ashtabula River – 50 Years After Silent Spring (USA)

Ashtabula River - 50 Years After Silent Spring

Fifty years ago, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring appeared on bookshelves. Silent Spring described the potentially devastating impacts of widespread use of chemicals, like the pesticide DDT.

Thanks in part to Carson’s work, use of pesticides is now regulated, and the use of DDT is banned in the United States. Birds like the bald eagle and peregrine falcon, once edging toward extinction due to the effects of DDT in the environment, are recovered.

But even decades after Silent Spring, FWS continues to encounter contaminants in the environment, some new, some from the past. Northwest Ohio’s Ashtabula River is an example. For more than 30 years, beginning in the 1940s, industries in Ashtabula improperly disposed of wastes in the river, contaminating the lower 2 miles of the Ashtabula River with over 30 hazardous substances including polychlorinated biphenyls, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, chlorinated solvents and low-level radioactive materials. As a result, the size and composition of fish populations in the Ashtabula River declined by as much as 50 percent compared with other Lake Erie tributaries. Populations of bottom-dwelling insects and other invertebrates, which support the river’s fish also declined and PCB levels were above those known to cause injury to fish-eating birds. In addition, the high levels of contaminants restricted human use of the river, limiting both recreational boating and commercial shipping.

In 2001, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, serving as trustees for fish, wildlife and habitat in the river injured by contaminants, brought a claim for natural resource damages under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, commonly known as Superfund, against 18 companies believed responsible for the contamination. In 2005, partially as a result of the trustees’ action, the companies sought funding from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency under the Great Lakes Legacy Act to remove contaminated sediment from the river. In 2006 – 2007, approximately 497,000 cubic yards of contaminated sediments were removed under a cost share among EPA, the State of Ohio and the companies. Total dredging costs were more than $50 million. Later, an additional 135,000 cubic yards of contaminated sediments were removed from the navigation channel under the Water Resources Development Act. The two dredging projects removed over 95 percent of the contaminated sediment in the Ashtabula River, allowing recovery of fisheries and other natural resources, as well as resumption of navigational dredging.

The trustees continued to pursue the natural resources damage claim, which was settled in 2012. Under terms of the settlement, the trustees recovered the cost of the assessment and acquired more than 200 acres of upland forest, forested wetlands, and marsh along 3.4 miles on the lower Ashtabula River. The trustees also acquired more than 100 acres of rare fen habitat at the source of the Ashtabula River. Also as part of the settlement, the companies are required, with trustee oversight, to improve and enhance existing habitats and transfer properties to local public entities where they will be protected from development in perpetuity.


Press Release, October 15, 2012