What lurks beneath Pittsburgh's three rivers is raising eyebrows
Myrna Newman, executive director of Allegheny Cleanways, stands next to the Monongahela River on Thursday at an old boat launch on the South Side.
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After a stolen Chevy Malibu was driven off an 18th Street boat launch on the South Side early on a recent Tuesday morning -- joining shopping carts, refrigerators, wagon wheels and dozens of other cars at the bottom of Pittsburgh's rivers, authorities took an accounting of the newest item to join the Monongahela River's jumble of junk.
A dive team from Pittsburgh River Rescue confirmed that no bodies were trapped in the car. Pittsburgh's Coast Guard and Army Corps of Engineers were both satisfied that it didn't present a navigational hazard. The car didn't threaten enough pollution to rouse the attention of environmental officials.
And so with a collective shrug, authorities chose to leave the Malibu -- and two other cars the divers discovered next to it -- where it lay.
"It wasn't something that even caused an eyebrow to be arched," said John Poister, the Department of Environmental Protection's Pittsburgh spokesperson.
The official guardians of Pittsburgh's rivers agree. For reasons of cost and environmental inconsequence, they say, most of the wreckage that lines the bottom of the Monongahela, Allegheny, and Ohio rivers should be left where it is.
But citizen activists have responded with a nascent campaign to pull this most recent vehicular deposit up from the deep. They argue that what's at stake is not only a bit of leaking gas but also a culture that treats its rivers as dumpsites and believes in making trash disappear, whatever the cost.
"When we're letting our waterways be used essentially as a landfill, we have a mindset of throwing things away. Out of sight, out of mind," said Myrna Newman, director of Allegheny Cleanways, a group that cleans up illegally dumped trash. "The danger of that philosophy is why we're cleaning up not only river fronts but also illegal dumping across the county."
Underwater, out of sight
Jon Atkinson, a paramedic and public safety diver with Pittsburgh River Rescue, said he usually discovers sunken vehicles when the 130-foot rope that connects him to a boat like an umbilical cord during dives gets snagged on the wreckage. The underwater visibility is poor and even four training dives a month can't prepare him for what he'll find.
"If it can fit in the water and sink it's probably in the river somewhere," Mr. Atkinson said.
The only person with an available map of the wreckage is Bob Shema, a retired diver who has led the search since 1995 for a B-25 bomber that sank in the Monongahela in 1956. Side-scan sonar images he produced show dozens of cars -- represented as small, bright rectangles -- lined along the banks of the Monongahela.
A few weeks ago, Mr. Atkinson brought to the surface a wooden wagon wheel he estimated to be from the late 1800s. Once he recovered a group of "three- or four-foot long ninja swords" and another time a "cowboy type gun belt" at the bottom of the river. More commonly, he comes across cars, boats, refrigerators, steel beams, bicycles and fishing rods. But the wreckage Mr. Atkinson finds most frequently is shopping carts. The river is the ideal dumpster for putting an awkward item out of sight, he said.
"You're not supposed to be caught with them."
The same wisdom guides the disposal of the trash that Mr. Atkinson's partner, Eric Cabets, frequently finds: motorcycles, guts of ATM machines, stolen computers, Pirates giveaways near PNC Park, dozens of cars piled under boat launches and carpets.
"They're easier to just throw into the river than they are to cut up and put out for trash," Mr. Cabets said.
Mr. Cabets, who calls himself "kind of an environmentalist," said that "it would take just a couple of minutes" to hook cables between the sunken Chevy and a tow truck and drag it out.
But, he speculated, the same forces of convenience that lead people to throw trash into the river keep authorities from removing it. "I think it's just easier to let it sit there."
Sunken cars and boats slip through a regulatory framework focused primarily on threats to commercial navigation and major pollution events. Lieutenant Alanna McGovern of the Coast Guard in Pittsburgh said the "Coast Guard doesn't step in until it poses a hazard to navigation." Scott Hans, chief of the regulatory branch of the Army Corps of Engineers in Pittsburgh, said similarly that "our role is focused on maintaining an open navigation channel," which the Army Corps guarantees to nine feet below the surface.
Rich Linn, chief of River Rescue in Pittsburgh, said the cost of removing a car, which diver Jon Atkinson estimated at "a few thousand dollars," prevented his agency from pulling up cars not needed for crime scenes. The car's insurance provider can pay for its removal but rarely does.
John Lipscomb, boat captain for the New York advocacy group Riverkeeper, said he's troubled by regulations that hold up commercial navigation as rivers' primary purpose. He recounted stories of wrecked boats and loads of lead batteries being ignored because they didn't affect commerce. "If they weren't getting in the way of commercial navigation, they were in a no man's land in terms of regulations."
In an ideal world, said Mr. Poister of Pennsylvania DEP, every piece of wreckage would be removed. But in the real world, where Pittsburgh's rivers are already exposed to minor accidental spills daily, he said a newly sunken car is "inconsequential." He repeated the old water quality adage: "Dilution is the solution to pollution."
David Dzombak, professor and expert in aquatic chemistry at Carnegie Mellon University, said the full picture is more complicated. He agreed that cars don't present serious environmental threats but said gasoline, oil and lead in batteries shouldn't be ignored. A drinking water intake facility is located seven miles downstream from where the Chevy sank. He also worried that with underwater movement, a car that appears out of the way could soon become a hazard.
"The central issue is that these are entities with known toxics aboard them," he said. "They were in an accessible location. They're a potential physical hazard that there's a possibility to remove. ... It seems kind of callous to leave them there."
Bringing the problem to the surface
Standing outside Construction Junction in North Point Breeze on a recent Thursday morning, Bob Johnson ran his hands over two large cubes he'd created out of junk pulled from the rivers.
One, named "Combined Sewage Outfall A-32" after the site where the cube's wreckage was found, was composed of a motorcycle, large metal spring, thick ropes, a bicycle and a chest freezer. Mr. Johnson tries to display his cubes along the river as a sort of documentary affirmation that burying trash underwater won't solve people's waste problems.
"I'm trying to reverse a deeply ingrained, almost unconscious tendency of the culture to want to distance itself from its own waste," he said. "Mainstream thinking regards the proper place for trash to be out sight. Artful trash management affirms the reverse: we have a lot to gain from coming to terms with seeing the trash."
In conjunction with Myrna Newman, Mr. Johnson has initiated efforts to pull the Chevy Malibu out of the river and integrate it into a cube that would serve as a public art case study of junk's permanence.
District 3 Councilman Bruce Kraus, who has been in talks with Mr. Johnson about the project, said the culture of permissiveness around abandoned underwater vehicles is evidence of a broad failure to manage waste thoughtfully. "If you don't grab someone's attention in showing that there are consequences for it, it goes as an unwritten permission slip to continue illegal behavior."
Myrna Newman knows that it won't be easy to change a culture that prioritizes hiding waste over thinking creatively about how to reduce its production. She said even the green movement seems not to want to confront the question.
"Litter is very basic. It's not very sexy, it's not on the big list for most environmentalists, but it's a really basic problem. To a lot of people, it's their biggest problem."
For Riverkeeper's John Lipscomb, a choice about how to handle river wreckage is really a choice about how to understand rivers. "It isn't a resource. It's a river," he said. "We shouldn't just be removing debris that hurts our use of the river. We should be removing debris that hurts the river."
Ms. Newman said that though controls on industrial pollution have improved water quality, it will take longer to restructure people's relationship with the water in Pittsburgh.
"We've always extracted things from the land," she said. "Our industries have all been about taking coal, oil, gas. ... It's harder for us to think about stewarding the land."
Maybe, she hopes, a Chevy Malibu dumped inartfully into the deep will change that.
First Published August 12, 2012 12:00 am