Report: Rock River 10th most polluted in U.S.

By Frank Schier
Editor & Publisher

For the year 2010, according to an Environment America report released March 22, the Rock River ranks as the 10th most polluted river in the country, up from 12th in a 2008 report.

Data from the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) 2010 “Toxics Release Inventory” (TRI) was used to compile Environment America’s rankings.

Not all of Wisconsin and Illinois need to totally despair; this literally flows as a good/bad news story.

Bad news: 3,370,392 pounds of toxic discharges dumped in Rock River. Good news: one beef processing plant near the mouth of the river is asserted to make all but 80,062 pounds of the total, only 3 percent comes from up river.

Obviously, people at the mouth of the river are very concerned, particularly the Rock River Valley Association, located in Moline, Ill., one of the Quad Cities. Doug Riel is a vice president with the Rock River Valley Association and serves as chairman of its Engineering Committee.

The Rock River Valley Association is very concerned with the continued deterioration of the water quality of the Lower Rock River,” said Riel. “The latest report by Environment America has moved the Lower Rock from the 12th to the 10th most polluted river in the United States. Clearly, for those who live, fish and boat on the Rock River, this is significant. For years, the Rock River has been a neglected river at the state and federal level; hopefully, this report will bring attention to its plight.”

Tyson Fresh Meats, Inc., in Joslin, Ill., about 26 miles upriver from the Mississippi, is reported by Environment America as being responsible for 97 percent, or 3,290,330 pounds, of the toxic discharges.

Yet, Tyson spokesman Gary Mickelson told the Quad Cities Dispatch that the company was compliant with the Clean Water Act, returning permitted water to the river, and the EPA data states it is “not sufficient to calculate risk to either humans or the environment.”

Shelley Vinyard, Clean Water advocate with Environment America, told The Rock River Times: “We analyzed the TRI data that is self-reported by the industries to the EPA. We didn’t look at if people were in compliance with their permits or not. The Clean Water Act was enacted in 1972 with the goal of cleaning up our waters by 1985. This pollution is linked to cancer and developmental disabilities. Our waterways are overloaded with pollution.”

Vinyard said she would gather more specifics about the data from the Rock River and forward it to The Rock River Times.

Industrial pollution is included in this report, not other chemicals or sources of other pollution for each of the rivers, such as sewage plant discharges and runoff from agriculture and municipalities.

The EPA’s “Toxics Release Inventory” can be found at

The entire Environment America report, “Wasting Our Waterways 2012,” can be found at

The release by Environment America is as follows:

America’s Waterways received 226 million pounds of toxic chemicals

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Five states — Indiana, Virginia, Nebraska, Texas, and Georgia — account for 40 percent of the total amount of toxic discharges to U.S. waterways in 2010, according to a new report released today by Environment America. “Wasting Our Waterways: Industrial Toxic Pollution and the Unfulfilled Promise of the Clean Water Act” also reports that 226 million pounds of toxic chemicals were discharged into 1,400 waterways across the country.

America’s waterways are a polluter’s paradise right now. Polluters dumped 226 million pounds of toxic chemicals into our lakes, rivers and streams in 2010,” said Shelley Vinyard, Clean Water advocate with Environment America. “We must turn the tide of toxic pollution by restoring Clean Water Act protections to our waterways.”

The Environment America report documents and analyzes the dangerous levels of pollutants discharged to America’s waters by compiling toxic chemical releases reported to the U.S. EPA’s Toxics Release Inventory for 2010, the most recent data available.

Major findings of the report include:

Pollution from just five states — Indiana, Virginia, Nebraska, Texas and Georgia — accounted for nearly 40 percent of the total amount of pollution dumped into our waterways in 2010.

Food and beverage manufacturing (slaughterhouses, rendering plants, etc.), primary metals manufacturing, chemical plants, and petroleum refineries were some of the largest polluters. AK Steel dumped the most toxic pollution — nearly 30 million pounds — into our waterways in 2010.

In 2010, industries discharged approximately 1.5 million pounds of cancer-causing chemicals, like arsenic, chromium and benzene, into America’s waterways. Nevada’s Burns Creek received the largest volume of carcinogens in 2010, while neighboring Mill Creek placed third.

Nitrates accounted for nearly 90 percent of the total volume of discharges to waterways reported in 2010. Nitrates are toxic, particularly to infants consuming formula made with nitrate-laden drinking water, who may be susceptible to methemoglobinemia, or “blue baby” syndrome, a disease that reduces the ability of blood to carry oxygen throughout the body.

Environment America’s report summarizes discharges of cancer-causing chemicals, chemicals that persist in the environment, and chemicals with the potential to cause reproductive problems ranging from birth defects to reduced fertility. Among the toxic chemicals discharged by facilities are arsenic, mercury and benzene. Exposure to these chemicals is linked to cancer, developmental disorders, and reproductive disorders.

The Clean Water Act’s original objective was to clean up all of America’s waterways by 1985 — 27 years ago,” said Rob Kerth, analyst for Frontier Group and co-author of the report. “Many people born in 1985 have kids of their own now, yet still millions of pounds of toxic chemicals are being dumped into our waterways.”

To curb the toxic pollution threatening waterways like the Chesapeake Bay, the Colorado River and Puget Sound, Environment America recommends the following:

Pollution prevention: Industrial facilities should reduce their toxic discharges to waterways by switching from hazardous chemicals to safer alternatives.

Protect all waters: The Obama administration should finalize guidelines and conduct a rulemaking to clarify that the Clean Water Act applies to all of our waterways – including the 2.5 million miles of streams in the U.S. and 117 million Americans’ drinking water for which jurisdiction under the Clean Water Act has been called into question as a result of two polluter-driven Supreme Court decisions in the last decade.

Tough permitting and enforcement: EPA and state agencies should issue permits with tough, numeric limits for each type of toxic pollution discharged, ratchet down those limits over time, and enforce those limits with credible penalties, not just warning letters.

The bottom line is that America’s waterways shouldn’t be a polluter’s paradise, they should just be paradise. We need clean water now, and we are counting on the federal government to act to protect our health and our environment,” concluded Vinyard.

Top 10 waterways for total toxic discharges

Waterway Toxic discharges (lb)

Ohio River (IL, IN, KY, OH, PA, WV), 32,111,718

Mississippi River (AR, IA, IL, KY, LA, MN, MO, MS, TN, WI), 12,739,749

New River (NC, VA), 12,529,948

Savannah River (GA, SC), 9,624,090

Delaware River (DE, NJ, PA), 6,719,436

Muskingum River (OH), 5,754,118

Missouri River (IA, KS, MO, ND, NE), 4,887,971

Shonka Ditch (NE), 4,614,722

Tricounty Canal (NE), 3,386,162

Rock River (IL, WI), 3,370,392

From the April 4-10, 2012, issue

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