When the Delaware River Was Dying

WHYY News | January 22, 2019 | Energy & Environment
About 1 million pounds of waste was going into the river every day in the ‘60s and the river was dying

Credit: PWD archive
Outfall pier being built on the Schuylkill River, where it flows into the Delaware River, 1965
Joe Newton would fish on the Delaware River every day if he could. “It depends on the weather and the conditions and the like,” the Willingboro, New Jersey resident said as he readied his 20-foot motor boat for a morning on the river near the border of Northeast Philadelphia and Bucks County.

The idea that he could fish on the lower Delaware would have been unthinkable when he moved to the area in 1975. “When I came down here, you wouldn’t dare eat the fish and the water had about maybe three foot of visibility. And a lot of debris,” he said.

By 1964, about a million pounds of waste was going into the Delaware River every day, and more than 60 percent of that was coming from sewage treatment plants, with cities like Philadelphia, Camden and Wilmington contributing the most. It wasn’t just sewage. There was also blood from slaughterhouses, oil from refineries like Gulf Oil and Sun Oil, and toxic waste from chemical companies like Rohm and Haas and Dupont.

But in the 1960s, a large populist movement was afoot, and even people who didn’t think of themselves as activists started pushing to clean up the river. Then in 1972, Congress passed the Clean Water Act with broad bipartisan support.

Read the first part of “Reviving the River,” a series by WHYY, a content partner of NJ Spotlight.