Friday, December 21, 2012

Lecture Uncovers the Schuylkill's Dirty Secrets

Author Chari Towne
There was a time when coal silt from mining operations flowed freely into the Schuylkill River. By the 1940s, coal waste, known as culm, laid 26 feet deep in some parts of the river bed.

Recently, author Chari Towne, spoke about the dire state of the Schuylkill at that time, and the extensive cleanup that saved the river in the mid-20th century. Towne, the author of A River Again, addressed a crowd of about 50 people at a book signing at the Schuylkill River Heritage Area offices on Dec. 19.

A River Again documents the environmental atrocities committed during the Industrial Revolution that left the river so polluted it was seriously threatened as a source of drinking water. During her lecture, Towne explained that the river was originally chosen as a public water source for Philadelphia because of its "waters of uncommon purity." Those waters were later sullied by the routine dumping of residential and industrial waste. Towne painted a grim picture of slaughterhouses, dye plants and coal mines--among many other industries--all pouring refuse into a river that over a million people relied on for drinking water.
Heritage Area Exec. Dir. Kurt Zwikl introduces Towne

But it was the coal culm that all but choked the river. Towne displayed several photos of the river clogged with culm, so full at one point that it actually flowed above its flood plain. Other photos showed mountains of culm piled near the river, all of which would wash into the waters. By 1945 an estimated 38 million tons of culm had accumulated in its channel.

But getting the river cleaned up was no easy task. It took government leaders with a strong will and a love of the environment to pass laws that led to the Schuylkill River Project. The first major government funded environmental cleanup of its kind, the Schuylkill River Project was a massive undertaking that dredged millions of tons of culm from the river bed. Towne's book delves into the politics and the laws that brought that about, and gives a close look at the fascinating process of dredging the river. The book sold out at the book signing but will be available in early January  from the Schuylkill River Heritage Area for $21.95. Call 484-945-0200 to reserve a copy. It also can be purchased or downloaded for free from the Delaware Riverkeeper Network.

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