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.