27 Investigates: New report reveals dated cautionary statement about Mahoning River

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Ohio EPA Northeast District Chief Kurt Princic said it is ok to swim in the Mahoning River

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio (WKBN) – WKBN First News has spent the past two days investigating the idea of kayaking and canoeing on the Mahoning River. Is it safe?

Seventy years ago, the Mahoning River was one of the most polluted streams in the United States. Today, conflicting information exists about the safety of the water. After we started checking with state officials, that information could change.

Ohio EPA Northeast District Chief Kurt Princic said it is ok to swim in the Mahoning River.

“We wouldn’t be bringing people here to canoe and kayak if it was not safe,” he said.

But an April 2020 report titled Ohio Sport Fish Consumption Advisory, which the EPA helped put together, includes a section “Do Not Wade or Swim in These Water,” and the Mahoning River is listed there. It includes the waterway from Northwest Bridge Street in Warren to the Pennsylvania line.

The advisory dates back to 1988 and Princic will look to change it.

“First of all, I appreciate you bringing that to our attention because I think you will agree I wasn’t aware of that until you brought it to our attention,” Princic said. “We have, since that time, further studied the river. We’ve reevaluated the biology and the water quality, and the date suggests to me that we need to revisit it.”

Stuart Smith is the board chair of the group Friends of the Mahoning River. When he first heard about the no swim advisory he thought it must be old information.

“There is a great deal of kayaking along the river, and those guys never mentioned anything about coming up with skin lesions or anything like that,” Smith said.

YSU professor Dr. Felicia Armstrong has studied the Mahoning River. She wouldn’t swim in it because of the contaminants left from the steel industry, not the bacteria.

Armstrong said the soil deep under the water is contaminated, but you’d have to dig deep to get to it.

“We know they have been covered by clean sediment, and that’s why our river has improved as far as the health and biology,” Armstrong said. “But if you get in there, and you sink down in there into the old sediment, that could pose a hazard to human health.”

To support his claim of a clean Mahoning River, Princic cited tests from 1994 when only five of 29 testing sites along the Mahoning met the EPA’s water quality standards. When it re-tested in 2013, 23 of 25 sites met or partially met the standards.

“it’s a remarkable recovery from 1994. I can’t stress that more. What an improvement we’ve made to the biology and the cleanliness of the river over the last few decades,” Princic said.

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