Diving For Truths Submerged by the Kinzua Dam

Diving For Truths Submerged by the Kinzua Dam

The Ohio River is the most polluted river in the United States. In this series of essays entitled ‘The Ohio River Speaks,‘ Will Falk travels the length of the river and tells her story. Read the first, second, third, fourth and fifth part of Will’s journey.


Diving For Truths Submerged by the Kinzua Dam

By Will Falk / The Ohio River Speaks

The Kinzua Dam forms the Allegheny Reservoir, a few miles east of Warren, PA. Two days before the Fourth of July, I studied the dam and reservoir from a parking lot built on the southern edge of the dam. I was angry. Below me, motorboats and jet skis ripped across the water. Classic rock and pop country playlists clashed as parties raged on pontoon boats. Behind me, motorcycles carrying humans on holiday rides tore down the highway. The noise foreshadowed the fireworks that would soon light up the nation. Hearing the exploding fuel in combustion engines racing around me, and imagining the fireworks’ gunpowder that would soon be exploding across the sky, I wondered why my fellow Americans blow so much shit up when they celebrate.

The star-spangled banner flying over a Seneca Nation flag on a pole above me caused me to consider whether Americans actually believe fireworks put on a better show than the setting sun or whether fireworks are so beloved because they remind Americans of “the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air” and their favorite pastime, colonial warfare.

The anger grew as I studied the 1900 feet of concrete, steel, gravel, and dirt that stretches between two hills and stands 179 feet tall to trap the Ohio River.

I scanned the Allegheny Reservoir until it disappeared behind more hills. I knew, from previous research, that the Allegheny Reservoir sprawled northwards into southern New York for 27 miles and reached depths of 120 feet. I knew, too, that Seneca land had been destroyed when the reservoir was formed. Meanwhile, the sounds of Styx – that river in Hell and an accursedly annoying rock band – playing “Come Sail Away” competed with Shania Twain’s “That Don’t Impress Me Much.” Singalongs and drunken laughter, amplified by the water, drifted up to me. Shania’s mood matched mine best. I asked the Ohio River how anyone could party in the midst of such destruction.

Eventually the boats turned a corner formed by the hills and vanished. The wind blew across the Allegheny Reservoir leaving a delicate wake. The reflection of the hills in the water danced and waved. The water enchanted me. I tried to picture what was under the water. And, that’s when the Ohio River’s answer came to me.

People can party in the midst of this destruction, they can drive their jet skis over indigenous burial grounds, they can dance on pontoon boats floating over stolen land because so much truth, today, is submerged. Truth is submerged by history. Truth is submerged by ideology and cultural conditioning. Truth is submerged by popular ignorance of the processes destroying the planet. Truth is literally submerged like Seneca land under the Allegheny Reservoir.

The history of the Kinzua Dam and Allegheny Reservoir submerges many truths.

These truths include theft of Native land, the forcible removal of Native people, and another treaty to add to the long list of broken promises the federal government has made to Native Americans. In 1936, the infamous St. Patrick’s Day Flood washed over the Ohio River Basin. Floods like the St. Patrick’s Day Flood had, for years, directly threatened Pittsburgh, one of America’s most important industrial cities at the time. Instead of considering whether it was prudent to allow massive human populations to congregate in areas prone to powerful floods, Congress responded with the Flood Control Acts of 1936 and 1938 and authorized the Kinzua Dam.

The completion of the Kinzua Dam in 1965 and the formation of the Allegheny Reservoir drowned 10,000 acres of the Seneca Nation’s most fertile lands. That 10,000 acres represented one third of the territory promised to the Seneca under the 1794 Treaty of Canandaigua signed by George Washington himself. The formation of the dam also required the removal of around 600 Senecas from their ancestral homelands.

Living Senecas were removed. And, so were some of the Seneca dead. In 1964, in an act of utter disrespect, the United States Army Corps of Engineers attempted to dig up the remains of one of the most famous Seneca war chiefs, Cornplanter, as well as the remains of more than 300 of his kin and descendants. If that wasn’t bad enough, apparently the Corps of Engineers did such a questionable job, that many Seneca wonder whether Cornplanter was ever truly moved and whether his resting place has been drowned by reservoir.

Truths are also submerged in plain sight by an ignorance of the industrial processes necessary to construct the Kinzua Dam.

Concrete is a good example. Despite being surrounded by concrete, I had never asked where concrete comes from. It turns out that concrete is one of the most destructive materials on earth. Using a study published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a Guardian article I found estimated that concrete now outweighs the combined carbon mass of every tree, bush, and shrub on the planet. In simpler terms, there may be more concrete on Earth than plants.

According to London’s Royal Institute of International Affairs, the production of cement – a key ingredient in concrete – is responsible for 8 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions. And, perhaps most pertinent to the Ohio River, concrete sucks up almost a 10th of the world’s industrial water use. But, how is concrete made? It starts with ripping limestone, clay, sand, and other aggregates from the earth. Wild beings live in communities where this limestone, clay, and sand is ripped from the earth. So, this extraction destroys these beings’ homes. Extracting and transporting these materials requires industrial energy and produces dust pollution as well as greenhouse gas emissions.

Industrial energy production involves ripping fossil fuels from the earth, produces toxic waste, and also destroys habitat.

The limestone, clay, sand, and other aggregates must be crushed and mixed with water to a certain proportion. This crushing and mixing process also requires industrial energy, produces emissions, and consumes water. The mixture is then heated to around 2700 degrees Fahrenheit to decompose the limestone and produce what is called “clinker.” This heating process again requires industrial energy, produces emissions from the burning of fossil fuels, emissions from the burning of the aggregates, and hazardous waste. After the clinker is created, it is quickly cooled and ground up. The rapid cooling process requires industrial energy and the grinding process produces dust pollution.

The ground clinker is now dry cement which is bagged, shipped, and distributed to work sites. Bagging produces waste and involves paper production which requires deforestation. Shipping and distribution require energy for transportation which again produces emissions. Finally, the dry cement is mixed with potable water and another type of extracted aggregate including quarried stone, fly ash, slag, and sometimes recycled concrete. In other words, when I looked at the Kinzua Dam’s concrete, I was looking at a destructive process involving thousands of people engaged in dozens of ecocidal activities that produced all kinds of pollutants and consumed water, the most precious necessity of life.

After I learned how concrete was made, when I looked at the Kinzua Dam, I couldn’t help but see the gaping wounds quarries cut into the land, the lungs microscopically shredded by tiny rock fragments in dust pollution, and the water stolen from creeks, streams, and rivers only to be trapped for centuries in blocks of concrete.

Uncovering these submerged truths made me angrier.

I fantasized about sinking pontoon boats, pouring sugar in jet ski gas tanks, and slashing motorcycle tires. I fantasized about the ghost of Cornplanter drilling holes in the Kinzua Dam. I fantasized about the Ohio River gathering her power to overwhelm and destroy the dam.

While I pictured the Ohio River bursting through the Kinzua Dam, I noticed a sound my ears had not picked up before. So far, I had only viewed the dam from the east side, the side trapping the river. This new sound beckoned me to view the dam from the west. As I moved westward, I heard a growing roar. Then, on the dam’s west side, I saw the Ohio River gushing out of two floodgates. The sound was roughly similar to the sound a waterfall makes. But, it was not the same.

Rivers choose to leap from waterfalls. They shout with joy as they jump from cliffs and over stones. They thunder while proudly showing off the full power of their flow. At the Kinzua Dam, the Ohio River was not free to choose. She was forcibly squeezed through pipes called penstocks to turn hydroelectric generating turbines. Then, she was shoved from a ledge to slam into a concrete drainage control bed.

As I listened, I knew the Ohio River was screaming with anger. The hills rang with her rage. In this rage, I heard her explain how I could put the anger I was feeling to good use. She told me to dive into the depths and give voice to submerged truths.


Will Falk is the author of How Dams Fall: On Representing the Colorado River in the First-Ever American Lawsuit Seeking Rights for a Major Ecosystem. He is a practicing rights of Nature attorney and a cadre within DGR.

7 thoughts on “Diving For Truths Submerged by the Kinzua Dam”

  1. Every July 4, I go as far from civilization as possible to escape the deliberately threatening sound of fireworks. I always wonder how much the life cycles of animals are disrupted by them, and how many are killed, as they flee in across freeways in panic.

    I once rescued a large dog from the middle of a freeway on July 4, and the animal control officer who responded said that the number of lost and killed dogs triples, every year on that date.

    Like most little boys, I was trained to love fireworks. But the Vietnam War got me over it, quickly and permanently. Once you’ve heard real bombs bursting in air, the party atmosphere loses its luster.

    As for concrete, the issue that started me toward environmentalism was my idle wondering, as a child, about the sustainability of industry. Polluted air and waters hadn’t occurred to me yet, but diminishing resources had. I wondered what would happen when we ran out of non-renewables like oil, gold, and iron ore.

    My father, who was an oil industry executive, reassured me. “We’ll never run out,” he said. “We haven’t even touched the shale oil and tar sands yet, and there’s enough in Colorado and Alberta alone to last for 500 years.”

    Little did I know that the two resources most likely to bring industry to a halt were the two we use the most, and which appeared (to my child’s imagination) to be truly limitless: fresh water and sand.

    But then, human greed and industrial ambition appear limitless, too. Eight years ago, I read that aquifers in 20 nations would begin running dry by this year, including those of the U.S., China, and India, the world’s three largest grain producers. The Arabian peninsula was the first to go. Tapping into ancient aquifers, the Saudis began growing wheat commercially in the 1960s, and became a major exporter. By 2016, however, that supply of water was gone, the Saudi wheat industry shut down, and its once lush wheat fields were returning to desert — albeit a much less hospitable desert than the one that was there before.

    Now the Saudis have their their wheat and alfalfa grown on the Arizona desert, fed by another aquifer that will soon be exhausted. The land above America’s greatest aquifer — the seemingly inexhaustible Ogalala, which runs underground from South Dakota to Texas — has subsided more than ten feet in some places. Meanwhile, measuring poles in Central California show where the land has fallen 15 feet or more in 80 years.

    These aquifers, too, will soon be gone. And what is the ag industry’s response? To dig deeper wells, of course, install bigger pumps, and build longer pipelines. It’s the same response as the fishing industry’s, when confronted by the fact that 95% of the large fish in the oceans had already been fished out. Did they conserve and cut back on fish consumption? Fuck, no! They just sent the boats into deeper and deeper waters, farther and farther from shore, for smaller and smaller fish.

    Capitalism doesn’t want to hear about shortages. Population keeps growing, demand keeps increasing, and “OUR Earth” will somehow be made to fulfill that demand. Population control and a lower standard of living are unthinkable. And so (due to the nature of business and government) is anything resembling true conservation.

    The corporate model is based on fiscal year dividends, while politics revolves around the next election cycle. Long-term thinking is for grad school professors and the next generation of corporate execs. Surely industry will think of something. It always has, hasn’t it? Human ingenuity is limitless, and we’ll even find a way to make something from nothing. Or so the apparent thinking (or lack of it) goes.

    Civilization’s second most used commodity is sand, with the current demand somewhere in the 12-15 billion tons per year range. Sand is vital to everything from glass to pavement to (most notably) concrete. But desert sand doesn’t have the binding qualities necessary for concrete. So industrial sand comes mostly from beaches, seabeds, river bottoms, and estuaries.

    And the demand has grown exponentially. Once China, Singapore, and the Arab Emirates realized you can build land with concrete, the sky was the limit. In one recent, 3-year period, Chinese industrialization and island-building used more concrete that the U.S. used in the entire 20th century.

    The ecological costs are indescribable. And, as usual, the poor give up their resources to the rich. Singapore and China have raped the coastlines and riverbeds of Southeast Asia for sand, destroying fisheries and shorelines as they go. And the only complaint from the rich is that their recreational beaches are under threat.

    In short, civilization has no plan for survival. Elon Musk, Newt Gingrich, and the late Stephen Hawking fantasized about colonizing Mars and the moon, mining the asteroids, and even moving mid-sized cities onto cylindrical space platforms, larger than football stadiums.

    Pure fiction. We have nowhere near the resources to build such monstrosities on Earth, nor the energy and facilities to build them in space. Gold mines in South Africa are being abandoned, because the cost of extraction from 2 miles underground exceeds the value of gold. But mining the asteroids, hundreds of million miles out in space, would somehow be profitable, according to tech addict Musk.

    The moon (with days and nights that are each 2 earth weeks long) has monthly temperature swings of 540° Farenheit, with no water, no atmosphere, and the constant risk of being bombarded by space rocks. Try coming up with wardrobes and shelter for that climate!

    Mars is much nicer, with an average temperature of -67° F., some ice for water, and a minimal and highly toxic atmosphere. Theoretically, a few thousand humans could exist there in bubble-domed villages. But once the newness wore off, the suicide rate would likely exceed the birth rate.

    No, we’re doomed to Earth. And at the rate we’re going, we’ve doomed Earth, too. We’ll keep growing fanatically until the wheels fall off. And when growth inevitably stops due to lack of food, water, and industrial materials, poisoned seas, and uninhabitable lands, civilization will stop, and civilized human society will collapse.

    According to the latest scientific projections, the End Times could be upon us in as little as 10 years, and will constitute a global catastrophe in 50 years, at most. Today’s young adults will live — and often die — to see it. And our best hope is that it happens soon enough for the remaining species (and a few prepared humans) to find a livable habitat among the ruins.

    As a more hopeful hit song from my youth implored, “People Get Ready.”

  2. Putting a fake crack in the Glen Canyon Dam(n) was the very first Earth First! action, just before I got involved with them. (https://sacredland.org/the-cracking-of-glen-canyon-damn-with-edward-abbey-and-earth-first/)

    Of course building dams, sucking water out of the Earth, and paving over the Earth are very harmful, that goes without saying. The list of harmful things that modern humans do is almost infinite. Instead of focusing on symptoms, we need to focus on the root causes of overpopulation and overconsumption, the latter including consuming things we should not be, like trees, fossil fuels, and farmed animals. If we don’t fix those root causes, all else would be like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

    And BTW, I used to sail. I thoroughly hate all power boats & ships, jet skis being the worst of them because they are motorized recreation with no other benefit. The only legitimate way to travel on the water beside swimming is to sail or paddle.

  3. @Mark Behrend
    The childish fantasy about living off Earth won’t work for multiple reasons, great distances being the first one. The dust on Mars would immediately get into the domes that people live in when they come in from the outside, eventually tearing up their lungs (they won’t need suicides to die). Even if humans could find a planet with the same atmosphere, gravity, and air pressure, they’d all be dead within a month because they’d have no immunity to the viruses and bacteria on that planet. (People think that viruses are bad things, but I look at them as part of our planetary defense system, in addition to population control.)

    But a bigger issue than logistics is the human attitude toward space colonization, which is just an expanded form of colonization. Humans have already ruined one planet, and one goal of all good environmentalists should be to make sure that humans don’t leave the planet and ruin other planets and asteroids as well. If humans can’t and/or won’t live naturally here and in much smaller numbers, they don’t deserve to exist, and good riddance to them. The needed changes will take a long time and will only be accomplished by incremental change, because people will not instantly give up their opulent lifestyles (all modern humans have opulent lifestyles, just some more than others), and lowering population by birth control takes time. Of course humans continue moving in the opposite direction, so none of this is happening now, but even if all humans were to immediately reverse their behaviors and start giving up some things like driving and having more than one kid, the desired result would not occur for thousands of years. It doesn’t seem like the Earth and everything that lives on it has anywhere near that much time, but we should all make an effort to do what we can regardless.

  4. @Jeff:

    “When Alan Weisman was on his “The World Without Us” book tour (about a dozen years ago), he said that a global, 1-child-per-family policy would get us back to 1.6 billion (the population in 1900) in about 100 years.

    But Nature probably has something faster in mind. By the current projections, climate change, drained aquifers, and farmland destroyed by pesticides and other bad farming practices will probably cut out 3 billion or so people, and severely limit reproduction by the remainder.

    Plus there’s the plunging male fertility rate in the developed world — which, if the decline continues, should make it just about impossible for people in the Global North to reproduce by 2100. The reasons for the decline are unknown, but the chief suspects are plastics ingestion, pesticides, microwaves, or one of the other untested side-effects of 20th century technology.

    Don’t you just love how Nature compensates for human stupidity?
    “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” And that includes every action of Industrial Man.

    The worst case scenario, IMHO, is that in the frantic scramble for diminishing resources, someone will touch off a nuclear war. The only bright side of that might be that a “nuclear winter” could offset global warming. But I’m too much of a pessimist to see anything good coming out of nuclear war.

  5. @Mark Behrend
    I meant it would take thousands of years for humans to get back to living as hunter-gatherers. I’ve never done the math on how long a global one-child-family policy would take to reduce the human population to any given number, though 1.6 billion is still far too many.

    Alan Weisman’s book Countdown was excellent, but Weisman is far from being a deep ecologist or a radical environmentalist. He said that his goal is to lower human population to 2-3 billion (or maybe 1.6 billion, I can’t remember), and that everyone on Earth should have western European lifestyles. He admits that these population and consumption levels would still result in some extinctions, but he’s willing to live with them. Well, I’m not. That’s still far too much consumption and population, and living that way would still be totally out of balance with the local ecosystems and habitats.

    Humans need to stop obsessing on the intellect, ego, and the physical/natural world, and instead focus on wisdom, empathy, and expanding consciousness. The only interactions humans should have with the physical/natural world are to take what they need for basic necessities like food & water, and to enjoy the Earth’s beauty by looking but not touching. Our legitimate role on this planet is to expand our consciousness; it is not a physical role for multiple reasons. Getting back to this, which BTW some traditional indigenous people have always done (making them the most advanced people on Earth), will take a lot longer than 100 years. Whether we’ll have made the planet uninhabitable by the time it takes to do what’s really needed is another issue, but our goal should remain the same nevertheless.

  6. @Mark Behrend
    I meant that humans need to stop obsessing on “unnaturally and very harmfully manipulating the physical/natural world.”

  7. @ Jeff
    We’re in basic agreement — especially on the moral imperative of doing what we can for the natural world, regardless of the odds against us. As a species, we’re hopelessly beyond “take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints.” But one goal that’s always within reach is to make the situation at hand a little better, and set a good example.

    I have an example of that I’d like to pass along, plus a couple of questions I want to ask, without further tying up the DGR forum. If you’re agreeable, email my dummy (generally unused) email account — markebehrend@gmail.com — and I’ll reply from my real account.

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