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Life on Ohio Valley’s Waterways

Glen Dale Native ‘Living the Dream’ as EPA Scientist

Frank Borsk, member of the Freshwater Bioassessment team in Region 3. USEPA photo by Eric Vance

WHEELING — On a day as fine as April can muster, buttercups are whooping it up on the rich silt left behind by winter flooding on Wheeling Island. A pileated woodpecker is chuckling somewhere in the trees, his pterodactyl-style head somehow hidden from view despite his grand size.

It’s the kind of day and place Frank Borsuk has seen hundreds of times. Maybe millions of times if that is possible in a mere 55 years. But, it hasn’t grown old.

Borsuk lingers in a dip along the trail of what is now part of the Ohio River Islands National Wildlife Preserve. He’s found one half the shell of a pink heelsplitter, a native species of mussel that suggests clean water is present, and he is pleased.

“It’s not called a heelsplitter for nothing,” he says with a grin.

The Glen Dale native has hiked, fished, swum, boated, camped, water skied and whatever else can be done on the Ohio River and its tributaries since he was old enough to walk. He knows better than to step on something that has razor-like edges.

He knows quite a few other things, too. Many have been absorbed from this very place. Others have been polished to the doctoral-level precision that Borsuk now uses as an aquatic fisheries biologist for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Wheeling field office.

Borsuk, 21 years into his career with the EPA, now gets paid to check out the Ohio Valley’s waterways’ critters and the water itself. He sees firsthand that things are getting better — the very data he collects being a part of that improvement.

“I’m living the dream.”

HARD FACTS

When Borsuk was growing up in 1970s Marshall County, the Ohio River and its tributaries were fascinating. They were also disgusting on occasion.

“We always knew to wait two or three days after a rain to go in,” Borsuk said of the main river. “It was because of the sewage.”

This was the era before the federal Clean Water Act of 1972 was really kicking in, he explained. Cities such as Wheeling and industries along the river were discharging all manner of waste straight into the water.

Even on better days, when it felt relatively safe to swim and even fish, there were pretty much only two types to be caught. Carp and catfish.

He did catch them — sometimes by the light of all-night bonfires at the Glen Dale airport — and ate the smallish ones. He also gigged (and ate) bullfrogs and collected a multitude of snakes and whatnot just to see what was out there in all that water.

Nowadays — with the region decades into complying with federal policies aimed at fishability and swimability for all U.S. waters — there is a lot more to be seen. Borsuk is thrilled as both a sportsman and a scientist whose work focuses on collecting the data that underpins such policies.

More than 160 species of fish are now present in the Ohio River, said the grad of West Liberty, Marshall and Penn State universities.

“You always hear the rumors about catfish as big as a Volkswagen. I haven’t seen one as big as (that), but I have seen 80 pounders.” He prefers to release such wiley characters — which would have accumulated too many toxins over their long lives to be eaten anyway — so they can continue to pass on their genes.

Catfish aren’t the only big boys in the river. Not long ago, a shark-sized sturgeon was found, he noted of a rare species. Discovered only in death, it was an old one, which says a lot considering it’s a species known to live well past 100 years in good conditions.

Anglers have noticed such bounty. Just counting tournaments, some 150,000 hours of fishing take place on the river each year, Borsuk said. Twenty years ago, it was more like 15,000 hours a year.

“I see the benefits of the Clean Water Act,” Borsuk said of both data collection and, well, fishing. “It was a dirty river, but now fisheries have really come back.”

He noted that it’s not just fish at stake.

“Everybody needs clean water,” he said, noting he considers such policies less as regulation than as treating one’s neighbors well. “It should be a right – everybody lives downstream.”

UP CLOSE & PERSONAL

In Borsuk’s case, he’s often as downstream as it is possible to get without actually being a fish. As one of 80 science divers in the EPA’s employment, his research often takes him under the Ohio River’s surface.

“It just brings me joy, being underwater for a couple hours, breathing.”

River visibility is limited — ranging from less than an arm’s length away to as much as 20 feet — but the likely absence of large predators is reassuring. (He explained that bull sharks have been seen as far inland as Cairo, Ill. So, you never know.)

There is still risk, shark or not. Occasionally, he and other science divers get pulled toward the middle of the river by powerful barge-driven currents. While alarming, he noted with fascination that he saw the same pattern while fishing in childhood. His lines always went taught when barges passed by.

All in all, he still prefers data collecting in river dives over the occasional oceanic dives he makes with EPA teams.

For the latter, he’s assessed what is happening with artificial reefs more than 100 feet deep off New York City (old subway cars) and the Outer Banks (discarded tanks from World War II.) The slow ascent required to avoid the bends — combined with the need to hold onto a line for team safety — feels a little too familiar.

“I would just look around, to one side and the other,” Borsuk recalled of one such dive. “I felt like a worm on a hook. I was just waiting for a shark to get me.”

FREE-RANGE RIVER

Yet, that kind of wildness is part of the water’s lure.

Borsuk has been dealing with rivery risks since he was a toddler. “When I could walk, my dad would take us fishing on the Ohio. We had a jon boat there.”

In their teen years, Borsuk and his brother Joseph Borsuk souped up the same boat. They combined a small outboard engine and the wake created by barges for the occasional wild ride.

“Small towns,” Borsuk said with a laugh. “The barge captain called the police and they knew my mom and dad and the engine came off.”

Not that it stopped the brothers. They celebrated the start of each summer vacation by kicking off from their grandmother’s riverfront property and swimming to the Ohio shore and back. They collected empty 55-gallon drums washed off barges and lashed them together to form a dock of sorts each spring.

They ventured onto private property such as Captina and Fish Creek islands without repercussions. “We’d camp there for a couple days, swimming and exploring the islands. My parents – I guess knew where we were,” Borsuk joked.

It was a free-range childhood, which Borsuk has tried to replicate for his own son Michael, now 17 and an Eagle Scout.

While Borsuk is still involved in scouting, he was even more so when Michael was younger. Often, his presence included the river.

“I bought like a dozen face masks and snorkels. They were on sale at CVS and I bought them all,” he recalled of one interaction. “Put your face in the water,” he encouraged scouts at the time. “It’s a whole different world just under the surface.”

A CLEAN FUTURE

Topside isn’t bad, either.

Borsuk and a handful of science types recently helped Jon Yaron, a Paden City scout in pursuit of an environmental award, transplant 50 some paw paw trees to an island near that city. The trees, perhaps not surprisingly, came from Borsuk’s aunt’s property.

Beyond being attractive and providing a food source to both people and animals such as the zebra swallowtail butterfly, native paw paws may be able to deter the spread of the highly invasive Japanese knotweed, he said. The saplings were installed in three research tracts that will be monitored over time.

And, time matters, Borsuk reiterated of protecting the valley’s literal life blood. He offered Wheeling Creek as an example.

That tributary to the Ohio River is still benefiting from a little-known side to the Clean Water Act, he said. In the 1970s, a former city official named Art King used federal funds associated with the CWA to do some serious work on city storm sewers – many of which are under a fresh round of repair.

To keep the system better flushed out, King diverted run-off water from old coal mines into the system, Borsuk said. To this day, such acid mine drainage is being treated rather than killing wildlife in Wheeling Creek.

Clean enough for life is good, he noted, mentioning that area residents will have an opportunity to contribute to the health of their wild, free waterways in June. A river sweep will remove garbage from the shores of the Ohio River and its tributaries. Interested readers can contact Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission at 1-800-733-0174 for more information.

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