Prove your humanity

This story comes from WVIA News.

Bernie McGurl remembers his mother pulling the bath stopper out of their tub when he was about three years old.

“I said ‘Mommy where’s the water go?’ I wanted to know where the water went,” he said.

She explained it goes down a drain pipe into their basement and then into a sewer pipe under the street. Eventually, the water makes its way to the Lackawanna River. His mom, Jane, went on that the Lackawanna flows into the Susquehanna River and then into the ocean.

“So, three years old, I knew that we’re part of the Chesapeake Bay watershed, thanks to my mom,” he said.

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For over a century, the Lackawanna River was polluted by the mining industry, sewers and garbage. In the late 80s, an early version of the now-Lackawanna River Conservation Association (LRCA) formed to change that. From 1991 until this past December, McGurl, a Dunmore native, was at the helm as executive director. He’s now moved into a part-time role, passing on a legacy of clean water and land conservation in the region.

WVIA News spent time with McGurl as fall turned into winter and his time as executive director came to an end.

He is a Renaissance man. He’s been a carpenter, worked on the railroad and owned a business. He started nonprofits in the region — including a healthy food co-op that would later turn into local health food store Everything Natural — and was involved in the early days of the Steamtown National Historic Site and creating the Lackawanna Heritage Valley Authority.

Bernie is also a poet. He helped foster the Mulberry Poets in the late 70s.

“I’ve done quite a few different things,” he said. “I’ve lived … probably nine lives of a cat.”

In the mid-80s, he found himself at a new organization that aimed to do something astounding — clean up the long-polluted Lackawanna River.

During McGurl’s three decades of involvement with the LRCA, attitudes have changed and so has the river.

He’s in his 70s and has gone from pulling tires and washing machines out of the 42-mile river to working on plans for a riverfront park, a new building for the organization and finally cleaning up a major pollutant of the Chesapeake Bay, the Old Forge Bore Hole.

On New Years Day, after 33 years, he moved into a part-time role as senior project manager. And Tara Jones, a Scranton native with a strong connection to the river, began as executive director.

Jones feels fortunate Bernie is staying with the organization.

“His expertise is needed and just so appreciated,” she said. “To have Bernie as a mentor to guide me along is just invaluable.”

Jones moved back home from Long Beach, California, in 2022. While there, she earned her bachelor’s degree.

“I wanted to come back, and with my degree, I wanted to have some impacts, real impact,” she said. “I care about this area so much … I met with Bernie, and he took me out in the field. And it was just very exciting.”

Bernie said Jones is ready to hit the ground running, and she’s going to make a difference.

“People are listening in a huge way,” he said. “I don’t have to be here anymore … so that makes me feel really good.”

Jones’ first challenge came in February when sediment from a dam project polluted Roaring Brook and the river.

McGurl calls it some of the worst pollution he’s seen in the river during his 33 years as executive director.

The Lackawanna River and perceptions around the environment are starkly different today than when Bernie was growing up in Dunmore and Scranton.

“Everybody turned their back to it over 100 years,” he said.

The coal companies dumped materials from their breakers into the river and sewer lines ran down hills into the waterway, he said. Slaughterhouses dumped animal entrails into the river, and the City of Scranton operated a trash incinerator for decades along the river before modern landfills.

“This horrible black smoke came out of it,” Bernie remembered while standing at Sweeney’s Beach.

The LRCA developed the waterfront property on Poplar Street in Scranton over the past 10 years. It’s a late fall day. The sun is setting, crickets chirp and Bernie is talking to a group of high school students. He’s leaning forward on his cane — it’s not always in his hand, but usually near — and he’s standing next to what looks like a large rock.

“Some of this hillside here is residual from the combustion of the city incinerator,” he tells them. “So that’s what this is, a big clunker of combusted material.”

McGurl remembers driving in the back of his aunt’s Buick over the Market Street Bridge. It was a dry year, and the river stunk.

“So most of the water that was in the river had gone through somebody’s toilet. And it was wretched,” he said. “That’s what it was like here growing up.”

People were used to it, he said; that was just how it was.