Pollution Cleanup of the Schuylkill River

Researched by Patrick McKinney

“Dilution is the solution to pollution” was the mantra for decades as
throughout the United States waterways were deemed easy ways to get rid of pollutants from garbage to chemicals. 

The Schuylkill River, with headwaters here in Schuylkill County, was the first river in the nation to receive attention and cleanups initiated. 

Restoration of the river has been funded by money left for that purpose in Benjamin Franklin’s will.

The river is known to have been on fire more than once throughout history, for example in November 1892 when the surface film of oil that had leaked from nearby oil works at Point Breeze, Philadelphia, was ignited by a match tossed carelessly from a boat, with fatal results.

Silt and coal dust from upstream industries, particularly coal mining and washing operations in the headwaters, led to extensive silting of the river through the early 20th century. The river was shallow and filled with extensive black silt bars. By the early 20th century, upstream coal operations from Schuylkill County contributed over 3 million tons of silt annually to the river.

In 1948, led by then Governor James H. Duff, a massive cleanup effort began. Twenty three impounding basins were excavated along the river, to receive dredged silt. The 1945 Desilting Act helped begin this cleanup task.  You can still see vestiges of these operations outside of Landingville and Hamburg.  

The quality of the river has improved much over the past decades. A fish ladder to support shad migration has been constructed at the Manayunk dam. Mayfly hatches (signifying good water quality) now occur yearly along the Montgomery County sections of the river.

Schuylkill Headwaters Association led efforts to develop a massive Acid Mine Drainage Treatment Site at the Silver Creek Mine near New Philadelphia.  For several decades, the highly acidic waters draining naturally out of the abandoned coal mine flowed into the Schuylkill River coloring it bright orange and bringing iron deposits, heavy metals and other solids which pollute the river and interfere with public uses.

Now, a series of five passive treatment ponds produces roughly 1,200 gallons of treated water per minute and cleanses the metals and solids out before being discharged to the river. Passive treatment operates without electricity and pumping so that water naturally cleanses itself as it passes over the sequential ponds. Overhead photos taken early in its operation clearly captured the benefits of treatment – a stark contrast from bright orange to blue water as the flow continues through the process.

Formation of the Schuylkill Valley Sewer Authority and a sewage plant in the early 2000’s virtually eliminated wildcat sewers and cesspools in the Schuylkill Valley upstream from Pottsville and Port Carbon.