ASHTABULA, Ohio — As a kid growing up in Ashtabula in the 1980s, Jim Timonere and friends had a written and unwritten rule - you didn’t swim in the Ashtabula River.
“No, it actually wasn’t an option,” he said. “Parents kind of ruled the roost back then so no. Mom and Dad would say no and we didn’t even attempt it.”
With good reason — during the height of the industrial boom in the 1950s, the area around the river was home to nearly 20 industrial sites producing metal products and chemicals which led to unregulated discharges of cancer-causing PCPs into the river that would leave it contaminated for decades, unfit for swimming or fishing.
It was, as the EPA classified it, an “area of concern” — one of the most polluted waterways on the Great Lakes. Fast forward 33 years and $67.5 million worth of cleanup work later, and you had Governor Mike DeWine and the EPA’s deputy administrator in town to say that has now officially changed.
“We are taking the Ashtabula River off of that list,” said EPA Deputy Administrator Janet McCabe.
Fourteen thousand pounds of PCPs were removed from the river, as was enough hazardous sediment to fill 350 football fields a foot thick. It's an environmental victory, and a financial one as well.
“For every dollar you invest in cleaning up the Great Lakes, it generates $3 or more in economic activity,” McCabe said.
That’s something Jim Timonere is already seeing, 33 years later. He’s now Ashtabula’s city manager. He enjoys seeing the people from different parts of Ohio bringing their boats and their money to Ashtabula.
“They enjoy our river, they enjoy the ease of getting out to the lake and having fun out there and then coming down to Bridge Street or Main Avenue and enjoying time down here," Timonere said. "It makes a world of difference for us here in Ashtabula."
It, of course, was another Ohio river, the Cuyahoga River, that led to the creation of the EPA after it last famously burned in 1969. It remains an “area of concern” river for the EPA, one of three remaining in Ohio, but it too is moving in the direction of one day also being removed from that list.