Economic Development

$2M from State Keeps River Restoration Flowing

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Over the course of its existence, the state of the Mahoning River has ebbed and flowed.

The river fueled northeastern Ohio — and the growth of the nation — because it was rich in natural resources and it had nine major steel mills on its banks that allowed the United States to urbanize. But to trap large amounts of water, which was pumped for cooling, the steel mills installed dams in the river. 

Since the infancy of the iron and steel industry, the river served as an open source for the mills to get cooling agents for its hot steel coming out of furnaces. When they were finished cooling the steel, companies would dump the water back into the Mahoning River.

“I didn’t realize how bad we have abused this river in the last 100 years,” state Sen. Michael Rulli said. 

“That was a nightmare when you think about the poisonous, heavy materials that were going through the river over 100 year span,” he continued. “When [LTV], which acquired Youngstown Sheet & Tube and Republic Steel left, there was a foundation and some money to start cleaning up the river. We saw decreases in heavy metal, poisons and pollutants inside the Mahoning River to the point where we’re almost close to being clean.” 

Large amounts of industrial waste eventually returned to the river and totaled nearly half a million pounds of toxins, including oil, resins and cyanide, each day. Now, the 160,000 people that live in communities along the 26-mile river are ready to reclaim it. 

A rendering shows just one of the ways the Mahoning River could be further opened up to recreation opportunities.

When Rulli got elected, he met with community leaders, starting with representatives of the Youngstown/Warren Regional Chamber and Eastgate Regional Council of Governments, he said. When he asked area officials what their most important projects were, one answer was consistently near the top of the list.

“They said, ‘the river,’ ” Rulli said. “I listened to what they had to say and got involved with more community leaders.”

The Ohio Department of Natural Resources presented a $2 million check Monday at Eastgate to keep the Mahoning River Corridor Restoration plan going and to continue removing dams along the river. The funding was made available through the state budget passed earlier this year. 

Currently, funding has been secured for two dams in Youngstown, as well ones in Lowellville and Struthers. The money will be used as matching funds next year when Eastgate requests funds from the Water Resource Restoration Sponsorship Program for the removal of the Warren dams. 

The local legislators worked hard with the administration and their caucus to get the funding secured for this project, said Mindy Bankey, assistant director with ODNR. It’s an opportunity to restore nature, she added. 

“The water quality will improve in the river as well as open up economic and environmental opportunities that our agency thrives on,” Bankey said.

Once the project is complete, water trails will be developed where people are out on the water in kayaks going from point to point to visit cities along the river, Bankey said. With that extra activity comes economic benefits, she added.

The $2 million grant received Tuesday is a great opportunity for Eastgate to advance efforts to remove the dams and return the river to its clean, free-flowing state, said Jim Kinnick, executive director of Eastgate. 

From Leavittsburg to Lowellville, there are nine dams in the river, Kinnick said. Eastgate has been working with the mayors of the six communities where the dams are, he added. 

“We stepped in to facilitate to unify the effort,” Kinnick said. “Of the nine dams, we believe we have five completely funded.”

Future plans include condos and apartments along the river to capture the river’s essence.

“We’re just plugging along,” Kinnick said. “It’s an expensive process. Each dam is roughly $3 million. This will help us get matching funds to turn around and ask for additional state dollars from the Ohio EPA and continue our progress up stream.” 

Pictured at top: State Sen. Sean O’Brien, Eastgate Regional Council of Governments director James Kinnick, Ohio Department of Natural Resources assistant director Mindy Bankey, state Sen. Michael Rulli and Youngstown/Warren Regional Chamber President James Dignan.

Copyright 2019 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.