Environmental Pollution of the Concord River, a Historic American Waterway

By Tim Fitzpatrick

[Dec. 2005]

Pollution and manipulation of our waterways is a serious problem. As industry grows, so can levels of harmful contaminants such as PCB, perchlorate, heavy metals, and bacteria. Stemming from industrial by-products, runoff, and maltreated waste, poor water quality can lead to health problems for the public and stressful living conditions for aquatic life. In Massachusetts, the Concord River, along with its tributaries, serve as an example of the implications that pollutants can have on our environment.

The Concord River, located in Eastern Massachusetts, connects with the larger Merrimack, which then empties into the Atlantic Ocean. It is steeped in American tradition and has gone through many trials and tribulations. From colonists firing their first shots over it at the British in 1776 to Henry David Thoreau's first book, A week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, it is a part of New England lore. Serving as a highway that helped fuel the industrial revolution, this burgeoning natural resource was exploited by factory owners. With the help of some grass root organizations, local government, and volunteers, it may again become a waterway that will inspire writers.

The fame of its grassy meadows and abundant fish attracted settlers out of England in the 1600's. The Indians named it Musketaquid or grass-grown river because of its sluggish waters abound with aquatic vegetation creating an ideal spot for bass, shad, and Alewife (River Herring). As the floodwaters rose in the springtime, nutrients rose with it, allowing the land to be replenished. Farmers grew crops on its shores such as asparagus and strawberries as well as hay that supported strong dairy production. Native Americans harvested bass, shad, and Alewife for their sustenance.

By the early 1700's, as more settlers moved in, Native American fishing rights were taken away. A growing population meant more farms and an eventual need to dam the river for more crop production. As a result of these dams, fish stocks began to decline. Native populations of Alewife eventually became extinct in the 1800's as their return from salt to freshwater became blocked. Alewives are anadromonous fish, which, similar to salmon, come back to fresh water to breed. These dams prevented a return to their breeding grounds, which led to an eventual collapse of the population.

Dams were not the only culprit of a decreasing fish population. Pollution brought on by the factories of the Industrial Revolution was just as serious. Tannery, mattress, wrought iron, bolt, dye and cotton factories all produced massive amounts of waste. Factory owners adopted an out of sight, out of mind attitude as polluted waste flowed into once a majestic river. Organic pollution accounted for most of the waste, which depleted oxygen levels in the river. As organic pollution increases in water bodies, so do decomposing bacteria, which consume organic components. This bacterium in large colonies will deplete oxygen levels leading to an increase in fish mortality. Inorganic components like acids were also discharged in the river changing the pH levels and contributed to fish mortality. According to some Lowell, MA residents, you could tell what dye was being made that day when swimmers came out of the water. To say the least, water quality was a problem for a healthy fish population.

The Federal Clean Water Act of 1972, stating that sewage needed to be treated before entering America's waterways, served as a beginning to the river cleansing itself. Wildlife began to emerge as the river grew cleaner. As the fish returned, so did its predators and the river was well on its way to resurrecting itself and once again becoming a healthy ecosystem.

Unfortunately, in August of 2004, perchlorate was found in water samples tested between Aug. 18 and 25 at Lowell's wastewater treatment plant, and in the area where the Concord and Merrimack rivers meet. The Environmental Protection Department's health advisory level is 1 part per billion for perchlorate. In Lowell, the tested water contained 3.47 parts per billion.

Perchlorate, which can affect the function of the thyroid gland, that regulates the body's metabolism and children's development; is found in explosives, airbag inflators, certain fertilizers, and leather-tanning chemicals. Children under 12, pregnant women, nursing mothers, and people with hypothyroidism are most susceptible to its effects. Another more acidic form of perchlorate is called perchlorate acid. This is used to treat medical devices for heart operations. In December of 2004, local wastewater treatment personnel found that a medical device company in the area was a major contributing source to the perchlorate problem in the Concord River. The company responsible has since instigated engineering measures to correct the problem.

On approximately 220 occasions, the Middlesex county wastewater treatment plants discharged effluent in excess of the Clean Water Act standards between January 1999 and August 2004. According to the EPA, limits of total residual chlorine, fecal coliform bacteria, biochemical oxygen demand (BOD) and total suspended solids were all exceeded. The plant subsequently retained a contractor to correct facility infrastructure issues that caused the pollution discharge into the river.

Restoration efforts in the past 20 years, spawned by the Clean Water Act, have led to a possible revival of certain anadromonous fish (alewives, blue-black herring, and shad) in the Concord River. In May of 2000, a team from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Massachusetts Riverways Program, and volunteer groups released 7,000 adult River Herring or Alewife to the Concord River. The greatest threat to this recovery effort has been mercury and PCB (polychlorinated biphenyl) contamination, hydro modification and water flow problems. Nonetheless, in August of 2004, 1,000 juvenile alewives were found in a limited section of Heard Pond, which connects to the Sudbury River. This is significant because according to US Fish and Wildlife biologists, thousands of juveniles must be present in the whole pond! The adult alewives that produced these multitudes were part of a transportation program bringing mature fish into Heard Pond. Having these adults spawn is a positive sign that the conditions in the pond and just as importantly in the rivers it connects could be ideal. The eventual hope is that the fish migrate downstream and will return in three to five years to spawn in Heard Pond to create a new generation.

Contamination of our rivers and lakes is a major issue that needs to be addressed. Water is such an integral part of our existence, but somehow we still take it for granted. The ramifications of polluting our waterways can be severe and should not be taken lightly. Getting involved by acting locally and thinking globally is one way to help keep our environment clean. Not only will the wildlife appreciate it, but you just may feel good about it too. The Concord River is in my backyard. What river, lake, or stream in your backyard could use your help?

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  • Crane, Joyce P. Pollutant discovered in treated wastewater, The Boston Globe, 9/23/04. Accessed on-line 12/6/05. http://www.boston.com/news/local/articles/2004/09/23
  • Deegan, David. Middlesex County Wastewater Treatment Plant at Billerica Settles Clean Water Act Violations. EPA New England Press Release, February 18, 2005. Accessed on-line, 12/5/05 http://www.epa.gov/region1/pr/2005/feb/dd050204.html
  • Heaney, Sally. Alewives' birth spawns hope for their return. The Boston Globe, 8/22/04. Accessed on-line 12/8/2005. http://www.boston.com/news/local/articles/2004/08/22
  • Wilson, Leslie P. Farming in 19th Century Concord. Concord Magazine. June/July/August 2002. Accessed on-line 12/4/05 http://www.concordma.com/magazine/junjulaug02

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