Growing up in suburban Massachusetts, I learned to appreciate the quiet places by the water. Just out of sight from all the cars and sprawling McMansions lay the Sudbury River. Thanks to its designation as a “wild and scenic” river, the Sudbury feels like another world at points.

A scenic stretch of the Sudbury. photo by Flickr Liz West
A scenic stretch of the Sudbury. Flickr photo by Liz West.
My family would go canoeing along it from time to time, and if I ever needed a moment I could always just walk near the wetlands that fed into the river. I was far from the only one there. We could see some fishermen by some of the bridges or on small boats, tossing their lines in and waiting around for a nibble. At the time I always thought it was nice of them to throw the fish back after they were caught.

A Murky Past…

One of the many signs along the Sudbury, photo by U.S EPA
One of the signs along the Sudbury posted by the EPA.
It was only years later that I understood why the fish were allowed to swim away. As the signs around the Sudbury River still warn, the fish contain mercury and are not safe to eat. Almost a hundred years ago the Nyanza chemical plant was built alongside the Sudbury River. From 1917 to 1978 the plant produced textile dyes and a host of other products, and as a consequence created vast quantities of chemical sludge as well. More than 45,000 tons of waste were simply buried on the Nyanza site and left in the area. The rest of this polluted material was lightly treated and then dumped in a small stream aptly named Chemical Brook. Seeping up from the ground and flowing down Chemical Brook, it didn’t take too long for mercury and other chemicals to pollute the Sudbury River. Fortunately our story does not end there.

…And a Cleaner Future

Thanks to the Clean Water Act, the Nyanza site’s pollution was stopped, and the plant closed in 1978. Added to the Superfund cleanup list, the Environmental Protection Agency began the long process of cleaning up the river and surrounding area in the early 1980’s. The buried pollutants were removed and destroyed, and a plan was developed to heal the river. This plan didn’t just look at the Nyanza site, but instead all of the wetlands and even smaller tributaries around the river as well. Thanks to this kind of comprehensive, scientific approach the Sudbury has been slowly nursed back to health.

I fell in here once. Photo by Liz West.
I fell in here once. Photo by Liz West.
Years ago the Clean Water Act made turning the nations waters into “fishable and swimmable” places a national goal, and for the Sudbury there is still plenty of work to be done. Still, in 1999, the river earned its Wild and Scenic designation and the fish are far healthier. While they may not be edible yet, the next phase of the cleanup has begun to reduce mercury levels in the river. New tests are being run, and land around the Sudbury’s reservoirs is being converted into new wetlands and wildlife habitat.  It is the kind of care that ensures not only the river’s health, but the health of the wetlands and streams like Chemical Brook that feed the Sudbury, and the Concord River downstream, as well.  As I learned canoeing along the Sudbury River, our nation’s waters are connected. What is poured into a stream does not stay there, and we cannot simply ignore the smaller waterways until they combine into one big problem.

You can help us with that. Between December 16-18, the EPA is reviewing a sound scientific report of what our upstream wetlands and streams mean for the health of our rivers and bays like the Sudbury.

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