Pittsburgh's rivers have become such popular spots for recreation that it's been easy to assume that toxin-laden waters were a relic of the region's past.
Sadly, says a study released Thursday by the PennEnvironment Research and Policy Center, not nearly enough has changed in the 40 years since the federal Clean Water Act was adopted to make America's rivers, streams, lakes and estuaries safe for fishing and swimming by 1983.
Instead, industrial pollution is responsible for fouling or threatening water quality on more than 14,000 miles of rivers and 220,000 acres of lakes and ponds. In 2010, industries dumped 226 million pounds of toxic chemicals into the nation's waterways -- including 1.5 million pounds of chemicals linked to cancer, 626,000 pounds tied to developmental disorders and 354,000 pounds connected to reproductive disorders.
According to PennEnvironment, the Ohio River -- running through Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana and Illinois -- held the unenviable distinction of having the highest amount of toxic discharges in 2010, with 32 million pounds, and U.S. Steel's Clairton Works was the biggest polluter in Pennsylvania.
The report, titled "Wasting Our Waterways," is based on discharge statistics submitted by industries to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and is the second such study. One positive sign is that statistics from three years ago showed 6 million more pounds dumped into the waterways, so there has been a 2.6 percent decrease since 2007.
Some changes already implemented should help; the EPA in 2011 issued strong new standards aimed at reducing airborne emissions of mercury and other toxins, which should reduce mercury that falls into waterways in the form of rain.
But the numbers make it clear that tough regulation and strict enforcement by the EPA are essential. Though many of the region's and the nation's waterways are cleaner than they once were, the status quo is not good enough.