Yesterday was World Water Day—a day created to recognize the importance of fresh water. Something our culture places too little value on until it’s gone, sold, or poisoned. Yesterday morning I began my paddle to the gulf in Elizabeth, Pennsylvania.
Day one, The Monongahela River, Mile 23.5 to 2.5.
We pulled the truck into the boat ramp in Elizabeth—parking below large piles of wood, trash, and mud from last week’s high water. Ned Mulcahy, the Waterkeeper for Pittsburgh’s three rivers, helped me take the Out of Eden off his truck’s roof rack. Under gray clouds we loaded gear and christened the hull with the contents of a broken can of Pabst Blue Ribbon. I paddled out into the river amongst squat tug boats pushing barges loaded with coal and solid waste. Barges registered far away in St. Louis, Illinois, Baton Rouge, and Oregon. Trains loaded with coal and chemicals clanged by on both sides of the river. The wooded right bank of the river rose steeply, the trees covering it tinted red by budding leaves. On the left, huge clouds of white steam rose from charred smoke stacks. A sickly sulfur smell blew across the river. Yellow smoke and flames rose from other building and plumes of steam and water poured into the river. It took nearly twenty minutes to paddle around the Clairton Coke Works. Coke is an ingredient in steel manufacturing—and the works in Clairton provide its product to the Edgar Thomson steel plant downstream in Braddock. Coke is a refined form of coal with a manufacturing process that releases all kinds of nasty, carcinogenic, chemical by products.
Downstream, where the Youghiogheny River joins the Monongahela I met up with Ned to see if any of the water from an abandoned mine that was overflowing the night before could be seen in the river. These acidic discharges are common around the watershed.
Heading downstream towards Pittsburgh the Mon valley is so steep that most of the river banks are wooded, isolated from the cities—and in the places where they level out sit the rusting remains of massive factories and barges. Soon the Pittsburgh skyline came into view and I met back up with Ned 2.5 miles from the start of the Ohio River, my take out for the day.