Sending our pollution problems down stream

I was planning to travel to St. Martin and Saba for vacation recently. I was excited to go scuba diving again, swim with the turtles, and to once again explore the underwater world that I work to protect. Unfortunately, that plan didn’t take off. Still, I had the days off, so I decided it was an opportunity to explore it from ground level and took an impromptu road trip.

This was the perfect opportunity to experience what the Silent Oil Spills campaign is about – learning the fate of used oil and trying to prevent it from entering our waterways. Over 60% of all oil-related pollution in the U.S. is caused by improper disposal of used motor oil, making it the single largest source of oil pollution in our nation’s waterways.

I rented a car and grabbed a book of America’s best scenic highways and byways. First, I picked up the Ohio River Scenic Byway from Parkersburg, West Virginia. It received its English name from the Iroquois word, “O-Y-O,” meaning “the great river.” The Ohio River does indeed have a great place in our history and continues to serve as a major transportation artery.

Ohio River leading into Hoosier National Forest.

It was a beautiful 981 miles of driving but as picturesque as the scene was before me, I knew I was only seeing what was on the surface – which included, power plants with giant smoke stacks, large farms and litter alongside the road.

The Ohio River is the source of drinking water for more than three million people, it leads the nation for industrial pollution and has led American waterways in industrial pollution since 2001. However, it doesn’t stop at industrial pollution as urban runoff and agricultural activities contribute significant amounts of contaminants to the river.

There are numerous sections that are closed off for swimming due to pollution, limits on how many times you should eat certain fish caught from the river and multiple fish you can’t eat due to toxins such as mercury and lead. The Ohio River used to boast over 80 species of mussels and currently there are only 50 species, five of which are in danger of extinction.

The byway ended in Cairo, Ill., at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, two of the most polluted rivers in America joining forces. I continued to follow the Mississippi, traveling The Great River Road through Kentucky before heading back east.

Confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers
Confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers

When I got home I read about how the Department of the Interior released an online tool that allows you to select any major stream and trace it to its sources or to its watershed. The first example I saw was of the Mississippi River, this beautiful body of water that I spent days traveling along. As you can see from the graphic below, there are many (about 7,000) bodies of water that lead to the Mississippi and down to the Gulf of Mexico.

Chart: The 7,000 Streams that Become the Mississippi River
Chart: The 7,000 Streams that Become the Mississippi River

These 7,000 streams that connect to the Mississippi bring with them runoff and pollutants from parts of the 31 states that they touch and bring to the Gulf.

Throughout the course of my road trip I stopped at the historic spots, many State and National forests and parks, learning the history of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, their current roles in our history and began thinking about their future place in our history.

I was in awe of how powerful these rivers were and are, and how much damage we are doing to them, from agricultural runoff to the silent oil spills leaking from our cars. The greatest source of petroleum pollution in the ocean is transported there through rivers and streams, largely from the improper disposal of used motor oils down drains and from urban street runoff.

Pollutants that travel down stream are not out of sight and out of mind. All of these streams joining together lead us to a bigger problem.


Sarah Martin has worked in environmental communications for the past several years. She works on the Silent Oil Spills campaign.

Changing Planet


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Annie Reisewitz is a communications and marketing consultant for environmental and green technology initiatives.