PAWTUCKET – Fifty years ago next year, some 10,000 people “turned out and made a difference,” says Bob Billington, president of the Blackstone Valley Tourism Council, tackling the filth of the Blackstone River as a key first step in its revival.
“The Blackstone River is one of the most polluted and abused rivers in the United States,” states a synopsis starting a film on the new website zaptheblackstone.com on what motivated Operation Zap back in 1972. “It begins in Massachusetts and flows through more than 30 Rhode Island communities before flowing into the Narragansett Bay.”
Back in 1972, “a combined voluntary effort of more than 20 towns and communities was coordinated by The Providence Journal Bulletin and the Providence Watershed Authority to clean up the Blackstone River in Rhode Island in a dramatic one-day effort,” it adds.
Billington said organizers started planning a 2022 Zap reunion event pre-COVID-19, but the pandemic shut it down. Now they’re back in full swing planning an event they hope to bring renewed focus on the day that would kickstart decades of river cleanup efforts, as well as celebrate the many people and organizations that have made such an effort at bringing it back and highlight the need to do more.
The Great 2022 Blackstone River Revival “Zap 50” event late next summer will hopefully attract people from every community the Blackstone touches to turn out and clean up “the whole watershed,” bringing the river cleanup into the neighborhoods around it and the many tributaries that flow there, said Billington.
Slater Mill in Pawtucket was “ground zero in 1972,” he said, and that focal point of a new national park will be the site of a celebration next year.
“Let’s return to the base where we started,” said Billington.
Through the years, groups such as the Blackstone River Watershed Council/Friends of the Blackstone, Keep Blackstone Valley Beautiful, Save the Bay and others have invested so much into restoring the river, building on that first “big awakening” 50 years ago, said Billington. New initiatives, such as the massive combined sewer overflow project along the river in Pawtucket, are bringing exciting opportunities, he said, “but we need more.”
Donna Kaehler, of Keep Blackstone Valley Beautiful, will coordinate next year’s efforts on the Rhode Island side of the border, while Bonnie Combs, of the Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor, will coordinate on the Massachusetts side.
Billington said his other big hope for next year is for some sort of legislative change or mandate bringing fresh attention from the state and Washington saying that “from now on, this is how we’re going to treat the Blackstone.” As the Heritage Corridor did for the river in 1986, so too could the “Bring Back the Blackstone Act” of 2022, he said, targeting “how we get to accomplish the goals that have been elusive for 50 years,” including using the river for water one can drink, fish one can eat, and to be able to swim.
Though generations have become resigned to the idea of the river as an untouchable resource, said Billington, he believes that children today should not be denied the ability to swim in the river.
Billington acknowledges that earlier publicized goals of making the Blackstone fishable and swimmable by 2015 were overly aggressive and not attainable, and his own preferred target year of 2020 has also now gone by and those deadlines have kept the pressure up to keep investing in the river.
“This river has been beat up more than any other river in this hemisphere, and it needs a lot,” he said.
A river that was polluted 175 years ago has come a long way, he said, as will be highlighted in an exhibit by the Museum of Work and Culture in Woonsocket. Slater Mill was barely open when the Tourism Council was first founded, he said, and now it’s the key feature in a national park.
The days of needing to pull 10,000 tires out of the river’s Cumberland watershed are thankfully past, said Billington, but there’s still so much to do. Though there are fewer contaminated areas from Pawtucket to Woonsocket than there once were, there’s still so much more work to do, he said, and next year’s event will focus on those neighborhoods and tributaries surrounding the mighty river.
Visit www.zaptheblackstone.com for more on the Zap event, including the 20-minute promotional video.