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Textile and Paper Mill Industry polluting Nashua River, USA


The Nashua River, located in Massachusetts and New Hampshire USA, is a tributary of Merrimack River [1]. During the 1960s, in the midst of the industrial revolution in the USA, no environmental laws or regulations existed [2].  Pollution in water bodies from industries such as mills and textiles, was uncontrolled; municipalities and companies were allowed to discharge their untreated water and waste into the rivers [2]. The Nashua River suffered from these non-regulations as it was named one of the 10 most polluted rivers in the USA [2,3]. Because of its high levels of pollutions it was reported by the New England New York Inter-Agency Committee as being ‘outstanding for its absolute worthlessness as a fish stream’ [4].  It was greatly polluted with high concentrations of chemical dyes and paper mills which turned the river water to several colors [2,4]. Housewife and Environmental activist Marion Stoddart described the river as dead, she said water was filthy with bubbling from underneath, and the sludge so thick, animals like birds or small animals could walk on it [3].  She furthermore recalls how due to conditions of the river she could smell the river from her house which was a mile away [2]. By 1962, Stoddart began a campaign to repair the Nashua River. She formed a coalition between different stakeholders such as friends, locals, labor leaders, businesses and government [1,2] and approached the public through different mediums such as print, local newspapers and radio [2].  After having organized friends, local neighbors and officials to collaborate, Mrs. Stoddart formed the Nashua River Clean-Up Committee. They worked to request support from the local, state and federal government officials as well as involve and educate citizens and local business in the cause [1]; they wanted to “restore the national river" [2,7]. Later, a petition with 13,00 signatures was sent to President Nixon to seek assurance for funds designated for the construction of waste water treatment plants [8].  Bill Flynn, former 1967 elected Flichburg Mayor recalls “It’s one thing for the government to say, this is the right thing to do, and still another thing to have it actually happen. And eventually, the laws do get implemented and things do get accomplished. The difference in the Nashua River situation was, we didn’t sit back and wait for the heavy federal government, state government to come down to us and force us to do it, we actually embraced it as an opportunity. And Marion help made that possible. She kept us focused on it and made us realized it was an economic interest, not only the industries, but of the city; to be a leader cleaning up the river" [2]. At a public meeting September 17, 1964, the citizens of Lancaster, Massachusetts pioneered by Marion Stoddart , expressed their concern for the river; they wanted to improve the quality of the river and use it for recreational purposes as well (swimming, fishing) [4]. In 1965, a report created by The U.S. Department of Water Supply and Pollution Control stated that since pollution in the river was so high, it prevented the legitimate usage of the water and it was unsuitable for recreational purposed as requested by the people [4]. It set recommended limits for pollution constituents for paper mill companies (Weyerhaeuser, Fitchburg, Falulah, Mead Corporation, Hollingsworth & Vose, Groton leaer Board and St. Regis Paper) which were causing discoloration of the receiving stream and ‘tremendous quantities of suspended solids’; additionally, the river water was also being used for their industrial processes [4]. Textile companies (Fitchburg, Pepperell, Foster Grant Company) were to treat their effluent before discharging into the river [4]. The dissolved oxygen (DO) was reported to be zero in some parts of the river (a minimum of 4mg/l is required for aquatic life), and with intense algae life [4]. It stated that in 1963, thousands of non-game fish had died, this was correlated to the low levels of DO. Additionally; high levels of pollutant resistant living organisms (8,210 biological organisms) were striving in the river i.e. sludge worms, midge fly pupa and midge fly larvae [4]. The conditions of the river made fishing impossible [4]. “It was basically a dead river, it was a lot of municipal and industrial wastewater going into the river and the organic portion of that wastewater used up all the oxygen and the aquatic life can’t survive without the oxygen” Stoddart recalled [2].  In November 12, 1965 the classification of the river was discussed to be ‘E’ and ‘D’ unsuitable for any contact with human and suitable for industrial transportation respectively [4]. On April 27, the New Hampshire Water Pollution Commission, the New England Interstate Water Pollution and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts,, changed the classification to ‘B and ‘C’ which made the river suitable for swimming & usage and recreational boating among others, respectively [4]. After this, several wastewater treatment plants were incorporated. Studies and reports were created in an effort to check the water quality of the river.  In a 1973 report, several companies were still violating the settled DO values for discharge, by 1977 there was only one violation in point discharge water analysis [6]. The NRCC later changed its name to the Nashua River Watershed Association (NRWA) [7]. Now, the NRWA helps to protect and promote education of water through engagement and educational programs, for children and adults; it also supports a water monitoring program in the Nashua River by volunteers [7]. Up to now, 2017, efforts continue to make the river recreational and swimmable, although certain points still lack those qualities [7].  The Nashua River contamination case and public citizen Marion Stoddarts’ effort made the way for the creation of the Amendment known as the Clean Water Act in 1972 to the The Federal Water Pollution Control Act of 1948. The act made it unlawful to discharge pollutants into water bodies without permits, it implemented pollution prevention programs, it gave the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) power to monitor and control standards throughout the USA, it gave funding for sewage treatment plants and recognized the need to address pollution in water bodies [9]. Marion Stoddart, has received several merits. In 1987 she received an Award from the United Nations Environment Programme Global 500.  Her achievements were profiled in 1993 by the National Geographic special education [2,3,10], as well as a children’s book by Lynne Cherry A River Ran Wild10. In 2009, she was honored  as a “Woman Taking the Lead to Save Our Planet” by the National Women’s History Project, and a short film was created by Susan Edwards and Dorie Clark Marion Stoddart: The Work of a 1000 [2,10].

Basic Data

Name of conflict:Textile and Paper Mill Industry polluting Nashua River, USA
Country:United States of America
State or province:Massachusetts and New Hampshire
Accuracy of locationHIGH (Local level)

Source of Conflict

Type of conflict. 1st level:Industrial and Utilities conflicts
Type of conflict. 2nd level:Landfills, toxic waste treatment, uncontrolled dump sites
Specific commodities:Chemical products
Textiles, Paper

Project Details and Actors

Project details

Type of populationUrban
Start of the conflict:17/09/1964
End of the conflict:12/11/1965
Company names or state enterprises:New Hampshire Goverment from United States of America
Massachusetts Government from United States of America
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from United States of America
Relevant government actors:New Hampshire and Massachusetts Governments
Environmental justice organizations (and other supporters) and their websites, if available:Nashua River Watershed organization:

Conflict & Mobilization

IntensityHIGH (widespread, mass mobilization, violence, arrests, etc...)
Reaction stageMobilization for reparations once impacts have been felt
Groups mobilizing:Local ejos
Forms of mobilization:Community-based participative research (popular epidemiology studies, etc..)
Media based activism/alternative media
Objections to the EIA
Official complaint letters and petitions
Public campaigns


Environmental ImpactsVisible: Air pollution, Biodiversity loss (wildlife, agro-diversity), Loss of landscape/aesthetic degradation, Soil contamination, Surface water pollution / Decreasing water (physico-chemical, biological) quality, Groundwater pollution or depletion, Reduced ecological / hydrological connectivity
Potential: Genetic contamination
Health ImpactsVisible: Exposure to unknown or uncertain complex risks (radiation, etc…), Other environmental related diseases
Potential: Other Health impacts
Other Health impactsInhalation of unknown substances
Socio-economical ImpactsVisible: Loss of landscape/sense of place, Loss of livelihood
Potential: Increase in Corruption/Co-optation of different actors, Displacement


Project StatusStopped
Conflict outcome / response:Environmental improvements, rehabilitation/restoration of area
Institutional changes
Court decision (victory for environmental justice)
New legislation
Technical solutions to improve resource supply/quality/distribution
Proposal and development of alternatives:The Nashua River Watershed organization was created in an effort to monitor water quality since the 1960s, it continues to do so until now.
Do you consider this an environmental justice success? Was environmental justice served?:Yes
Briefly explain:The classification of the river was revised and changed, legally for all water bodies in the USA. This allowed the EPA to monitor water quality, not only in The Nashua River but nationwide. The Clean Water Act Amendment was created.

Sources & Materials

[3] Savior of the Nashua River

[4] Pollution of Nashua River and Recommendations for Improvement. Lawrance, Massachusetts; 1965.

[5] EPA. Nashua River Survey. Boston; 1977 Thru 1980&Docs=&Query=&Time=&EndTime=&SearchMethod=1&TocRestrict=n&Toc=&TocEntry=&QField=&QFieldYear=&QFieldMonth=&QFieldDay=&UseQField=&IntQFieldOp=0&ExtQFieldOp=

[6] Nashua River Watershed Association. NRWA’S mission and history: Leadership and success

[7] Nashua River Watershed Association. NRWA Historical Highlights.

[8] US Environmental Protection Agency. History of the Clean Water Act

[9] How a Housewife Transformed an Open Sewer into a Swimmable Rive

Nashua River Watershed Association - Founders and Incorporations

Related media links to videos, campaigns, social network

[2] video: Marion Stoddart: The Work of 1000

Photo archive of Nashua River

Meta information

Contributor:Suky Martinez, ICTA-UAB
Last update18/08/2019
Conflict ID:2841



Kids holding their noses in Nashua River


River with red dye due to textile factories


Nashua River with untreated effluent


Newspaper clip of victory over untreated effluent


River with yellow dye due to textile factories


Nashua River tainted in red dye (1960s) and a restored river (1980s)