On September 9, 1972, around 10,000 people descended on the banks of the Blackstone River. Flowing about 48 miles south through central Massachusetts and Rhode Island, the Blackstone was at the time considered one of the most polluted rivers in the country – smelly and toxic from raw sewage, industrial chemicals and other debris regularly dumped into it.
Using helicopters, cranes and other heavy construction equipment, volunteers and the National Guard removed more than 10,000 tons of debris from the river in one day, ranging from washing machines to school buses. Operation ZAP, as it was called, made headlines across the country and launched more efforts to restore the river.
“Even today, [something like that] is pretty much unheard of,” said Ray Kelley, whose late grandfather David Rosser organized the cleanup. “Why would 10,000 people do anything except maybe go to a gym?”
Fifty years after the ZAP event, the Blackstone River and the bodies of water that flow into it are cleaner than before. Yet scientists and environmental activists say the watershed is less healthy than organizers of the 1972 cleanup had hoped it would be now.
The sediments at the bottom of the river remain contaminated from industrial pollution released into the water decades ago. Dirty stormwater carrying nutrients from fertilizers and chemicals from motor oil also regularly flows from the streets into the river, leaving the waterway unsafe for recreational swimming and compromising fish health. Trash continues to line parts of the river and its tributaries.
During a recent cleanup of a Worcester creek at the northernmost point of the Blackstone watershed in Massachusetts, volunteers came across a rusty old cash register, a basketball hoop and a sign post, in addition to more than a hundred plastic bottles and various packaging.
The plastics break down over time into smaller, hard-to-remove pieces that fish can easily ingest, said Laura Reynolds, professor of earth sciences at Worcester State University, who led the cleanup with his students.
“There’s a constant influx,” Reynolds said. “It’s a losing battle” trying to pick it all up.
“Throw him down by the river. It’s not serious.
The Blackstone River, which empties into Narragansett Bay off Rhode Island, began to suffer from heavy pollution during the Industrial Revolution of the 1800s. Steam mills producing everything from textiles to paper began to run along the river, using water as a source of energy. Factories regularly dumped industrial waste into the river, including heavy metals and dyes that turned the water into different colors.
With the mills came residential development and the need to dispose of waste and sewage. Kelley, the grandson of David Rosser – the organizer of the 1972 Operation ZAP event – said people saw the Blackstone as a convenient dumping ground, not a habitat for wildlife or a refuge for recreational activities outdoors.
“It was just, ‘Throw it down by the river. It’s okay,'” Kelley said.
In 1971, Audubon Magazine identified the Blackstone as one of the most polluted rivers in the country. It was then that Rosser began organizing Operation ZAP and convinced the Rhode Island state government, National Guard, and construction worker unions to assist in the mass cleanup.
The passing of Clean Water Act 1972 was another victory for the river and its defenders. The federal bill regulated industrial waste discharges into bodies of water and required localities to begin cleaning sewage before discharging it into rivers and streams. Rosser hoped the new water protections and more efforts to restore the Blackstone would help the river become clean enough for recreational swimming within a few years.
This has still not happened, as the river remains polluted for several reasons.
“In terms of the quality of the river, he wouldn’t be happy and would really keep asking for more,” Kelley said.
A river always threatened
In addition to the waste still around the watershed, some sewage systems in nearby towns are old and tend to overflow into the Blackstone after heavy rains.
The sediments behind dozens of dams on the river also remain contaminated. Blackstone River supporters want the sediment removed, but this process is expensive and time-consuming and would require finding another place to put the sediment.
Watch a short documentary from 1974 about Operation ZAP:
Another main source of pollution is from storm water that drains from the streets in Blackstone and the bodies of water that drain into it.
When rainwater flows through communities such as Worcester, underground pipes eventually discharge it into the Blackstone and other nearby waterways. By flowing over impermeable surfaces like asphalt, stormwater picks up motor oils as well as nutrients from fertilizers and animal waste that can fuel the growth of toxic algae in water bodies. As the algae die and decay, the bacteria break it down, sucking oxygen from the water and effectively suffocating nearby fish.
“I worked with an engineer once who said, ‘If aliens came to our planet and looked at our stormwater system, they’d think we’re doing a very good job of polluting our waterways as quickly and efficiently as possible,” said Stefanie Covino, who leads the Blackstone Watershed Collaborative, a network of groups working to restore the river.
Climate change could make the problem worse, Covino said. As temperatures warm, storms produce more precipitation because warmer air can hold more water vapor. This results in a higher volume of polluted stormwater flowing into waterways.
Covino said the solution must involve greater consideration of how sprawling development with lots of concrete and asphalt leads to more polluted runoff into the Blackstone River. Communities should prioritize replacing impervious surfaces that contribute to the runoff problem with more green infrastructure that cleans up stormwater, she said. Rain gardens and wetlands, for example, capture stormwater and naturally filter pollutants as the water seeps into the ground before heading into rivers and streams.
“If someone comes [into a town around the watershed] to build something, does the city say… ‘Have you considered green infrastructure?’ “said Covino. “Let nature do its job.”
City of Worcester officials agree that polluted stormwater runoff is a problem. They’re trying to fix it with about 85 underground devices called hydrodynamic separators that remove pollution from stormwater.
Jacquelyn Burmeister, senior environmental analyst for Worcester, said the Worcester Green Plan — a roadmap for the city’s response to climate change — also involves adding more trees and green space to mostly concrete areas and working with private landowners to do the same. Burmeister noted that more tree canopy comes with the added benefit of extra shade and less heat around Worcester.
The city also tried to upgrade its combined sewer system to prevent future sewage overflows during heavy rains, Burmeister said.
“We’ve come a very long way,” she said. “There is still a lot of work to do.”
She said it might take a while, but the hope is to accomplish what the organizers of Operation ZAP envisioned: a clean and healthy Blackstone River.
Produced with the assistance of the Public Media Journalists Association Editor Corps funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private corporation funded by the American people.