Local hero stands up for his environment

Tom Smith

Freshwater Accountability Project

Tom Smith has lived by the Mahoning River his entire life, but it wasn’t until 2011, when his good friend invited him on a kayaking trip, that he had ever considered getting near the river a recreational activity. “You know, the steel mills dumped so much waste oil in the river that it was all just an oil slicked mask of garbage." Tom recalled. "Fish had three eyes, tumors and all that kind of stuff... that's the kind of stories I remember hearing.” Today he is a member of the Freshwater Accountability Project (FWAP), our client, and the key standing witness in their successful case involving oil and gas waste polluting one section of the river he has never paddled.

From early 2014 until the summer of 2017, Patriot Water Treatment had run its oil and gas wastewater treatment operation in a way that put enormous stress on the Warren publicly-owned treatment works (the Warren POTW) and caused increased pollution to enter the Mahoning River. Patriot itself had also run up quite a list of violations (view FWAP’s complaint here).  Patriot’s business model was to minimally treat oil and gas waste and then send that waste to the municipally run and taxpayer funded Warren POTW for further treatment and discharge into the Mahoning River. 

But the Warren POTW was not equipped to handle large amounts of oil and gas waste—which is notoriously high in salts that can harm municipal plants’ treatment systems—and it was violating its own NPDES permit as it struggled to process the waste. This meant pollutants, including high levels of salt, were entering the Mahoning at harmful levels.  Evidence suggested radioactive components from the oil and gas waste were entering the river too. 

Tom was worried about these radioactive components and the high salt content harming his river. It seemed that Patriot’s political strength at the local level and a history of success in the court room at the state level had paralyzed regulators from doing anything to address the situation.

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But the Freshwater Accountability Project, a nonprofit organization that formed in response to private water sales to the oil and gas industry in Ohio, is committed to doing what it takes to protect our fresh water resources.  Even though they were at a significant financial disadvantage, with the help of Fair Shake’s Legal Team, they filed a complaint against Patriot Water Treatment and the City of Warren for operating in violation of their Clean Water Act permits, causing harmful pollutants to flow into the Mahoning river, and causing ongoing harm to the Warren POTW’s ability to treat its waste. 

It’s not clear whether Tom Smith would consider himself an environmentalist, and that doesn’t really matter. He loves the Mahoning and all the beauty it provides. He’s also a home gardener, proud of his “back to eden” gardening style. He takes pride in teaching his two boys to compost and grow their own food as much as he takes pride in teaching them to paddle and camp.

But He is also a steel worker, a shipper to be specific, for Wheatland Tube in Warren, OH less than 10 miles upriver from his home in Girard, OH. He is well aware of the effects industry has had on the river.

Growing up on the river, he still can’t believe how drastically things have changed. “I was just blown away with how beautiful it was…The trees lining shores. There's a lot of blue heron and there are eagles and all kinds of wildlife.”  His love for the Mahoning river grew quickly. In 2012 he bought an additional canoe and started taking his kids with him. It had become one of their favorite summer activities.  He also helps organize river clean ups and a yearly “River fest” to teach people about the history of the river and help spur advocacy for their restoration efforts. He does this all as a volunteer and member of the nonprofit Friends of the Mahoning River, of which he is now a board member and chair of the Restoration and Preservation Committee.

It is probably due to his deep knowledge of the river’s history that he was always cautious of where he and his boys paddled.  Though the river is full of scenic stretches, there were still a few sections of the river which contained what he referred to as “sludge” – a mix of mud and oil left from the mills – and other contaminants that he thought could be harmful to him and his children.  Because of this there was always one specific stretch of the river that they wouldn’t paddle. In his deposition, he stated that he still had not paddled a 10-mile section around Warren, OH because he was concerned about “what Patriot was dumping.”

People like Tom have a real role to play in taking legal actions like this one. For an organization like FWAP to bring a lawsuit, it needs standing—the constitutional right to sue—and it gets that through its members having standing.  Without Tom’s participation, Fair Shake attorneys Megan Hunter and James Yskamp never would have been able to bring a citizen suit on behalf of FWAP.  And because of Tom’s participation, Fair Shake attorneys were able to enforce vital environmental laws designed to ensure the health of wastewater treatment plants, and, ultimately, our nation’s waters, such as the Mahoning River. That’s a major role to play for our Ohio rivers, which have already taken significant steps towards restoration since the infamous Cuyahoga River fire 50 years ago

 “I guess I should mention that we were also successful in working with city officials and getting a $69,000 grant for the city of Girard to put in a canoe and kayak launch that we christened last summer. The Girard Fire Department was wonderful. They came out and took positions along the river because there was a lot of new paddlers and there's a couple of spots of fast water. We wanted to make sure that the new paddlers didn't have any trouble. We didn't have anybody end up in the water so it was a nice paddle!”

Tom sees a very bright future for the Mahoning.  One sure sign of this is recent funding for dam removals and plans to remove more, providing contaminant removal and restoring the river to its natural state, before industry came to the Mahoning River Valley.  “We worked with Lowelville, it's a city on the river, to get a $2.3 million grant to remove their dam and the sediment behind it. They’re finally supposed to start doing it this summer,” He boasted, and rightfully so. “We have a great mayor in Lowelville, [James Iudiciani], he is really progressive on using the river to enhance the cities income. He want’s do all kinds of projects on the river. There are nine dams that we need to get removed on the river. And we're working our way up. Lowelville was the first and Struthers has gotten funding now so good things are happening.”

He added one last note of encouragement: “With city officials such as James Melfi of Girard and mayor Iudiciani of Lowellville and others along the shores of the Mahoning who are willing to work with us and organizations like Eastgate Regional Council of Governments, this river is on her way back.”

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