Saturday, February 18, 2017

Pittsburgh and its three rivers

Today while looking for something else I happened upon a chapter in a digitized book made available by Carnegie Mellon University. The chapter is titled "Pittsburgh's Three Rivers: From Urban Industrial Infrastructure to Environmental Infrastructure."

It's a good read for people who are interested in how the Ohio River and its tributaries have changed over the years. A lot of river histories deal with transportation and settlement. This chapter deals with the more mundane issue of water treatment systems, sewage treatment (or lack thereof) and how industry and mining took over Pittsburgh's three rivers, their shorelines and their tributaries, often to the detriment of common people.

The chapter runs from pages 41 to 62. It can be read in one sitting, but it's packed with information that can help a person understand how cities all along the Ohio embraced the river, turned their backs on it and now try to find ways to take advantage of it in ways other than for commerce and industry.

The authors take several pages discussing the history of Pittsburgh's sanitary sewer and sewage treatment system. It may sound dull, but it provides an interesting history of how people looked upon rivers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. As is the case today, needs had to be balanced against costs, and Pittsburgh officials wondered why they had to be the first to treat their sewage when nobody else was.

Then the chapter discusses the effects of acid mine drainage on the Ohio and its tributaries. I can't speak for the Pittsburgh area, but I can tell you that in my part of the Ohio Valley, that problem dragged into the 1970s and perhaps beyond.

"The economic importance of coal production in southwestern Pennsylvania impeded attempts by government to counter the burden of mine acid drainage." That was from Page 50 of the book. Read the whole paragraph to see how people who lived downstream from coal mines had to live with whatever coal companies chose to dispose of, aided by the Pennsylvania legal system.

From Page 53: "Sewage from Pittsburgh and other communities overwhelmed the oxidation capacity of the streams, creating offensive sights and smells on the rivers. ... Fish were absent from long-dead stretches of the rivers, and chemical pollution fouled the taste of many drinking water supplies." This was in 1934. But legislation enacted in 1937 began to reverse that, and conservation efforts were charging ahead by 1945.

After World War II, city leaders began the process of economic growth to prevent loss of industry. Part of that was the clearing of land where the three rivers meet to form what is now the Point. Other than that one effort, the rivers were pretty much ignored, the authors say. Much development turned its back on the rivers. They cite Three Rivers Stadium as one example. Its circular design gave no views of the rivers it was named for, they note. "(D)espite the dramatic postwar renewal program, municipal leaders persisted in viewing the three rivers as engineered, infrastructural systems for industry and urban development."

The collapse of the steel and coal industries in the late 1970s and early 1980s gave the city the opportunity to see the river as having a greater purpose. As the authors say, at one people the three rivers were so heavily industrialized that people stopped seeing them as part of nature. Now that has changed, and various interests share it, although not always in harmony.

The last sentence, on Page 62, sums up the Pittsburgh area's relationship with the rivers and explain their importance to the region's future. Read it for yourself.