100 WVIA Way
Pittston, PA 18640

Phone: 570-826-6144
Fax: 570-655-1180

Copyright © 2024 WVIA, all rights reserved. WVIA is a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

A life dedicated to the river's flow

Bernie McGurl, now senior project manager for the Lackawanna River Conservation Association, discusses plans for a riverfront project in North Scranton.
Kat Bolus
Bernie McGurl, now senior project manager for the Lackawanna River Conservation Association, discusses plans for a riverfront project in North Scranton.

Bernie McGurl remembers his mother pull 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 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.

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 NEPA 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.

Tara Jones, new executive director of the Lackawanna River Conservation Association, helps pull a capsized canoe out of the river during the organization's ShiverFest on Saturday, Jan. 13.
Aimee Dilger
Tara Jones, new executive director of the Lackawanna River Conservation Association, helps pull a capsized canoe out of the river during the organization's ShiverFest on Saturday, Jan. 13.

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.


"But the guy who was like the impetus for pulling the organization together was a fellow named Len Altier," McGurl said.

In a newspaper article from June 1987, Altier is quoted: "I'd like to see something beautiful happen along the Lackawanna River instead of having a sewer running through our town."

Altier was inspired during a trip with the National Park Service to New England.

In the late 80s, there was a push to bring more tourism to the region. A group of locals was already working to move the Steamtown USA Collection to Scranton at the same time then-Congressman Joseph McDade was engaging with the National Park Service, which would later create the Steamtown National Historic Site.

Altier went to Lowell, Massachusetts, to learn more about its National Historic Park. In that same newspaper article from 1987, Altair said there he learned how the town cleaned up the nearby Merrimack River.

He realized that people back home should be able to enjoy their river.

“If we don’t do it ourselves, nobody is going to do it," he said in the article.

By that point, the Lackawanna was beginning to clean up on its own, said McGurl.

Advocates in the 1950s and 60s pushed the municipalities to create sewer systems. They were expected to according to Pennsylvania's Clean Streams Act of 1937.

Scranton designed a sewer plant in 1944, McGurl said, but it wasn't built until 1966.

The mining industry was also all but gone. McGurl said officials could no longer use the industry and its constant pollution of the river as an excuse not to built the plants.

The first Canoe-a-Thon on the Lackawanna was held in 1973. McGurl wasn't in the first one, but he was delighted to see people paddling down the river. He paddled the next year and in a few more in the late 70s.

Over the past three decades, the river has become much cleaner than when Bernie was growing up. He often gives credit to those that came before him and worked alongside him.

Patrick McKenna was the former editorial page editor at The Times-Tribune. He retired last year after over 45 years at the paper. His career started as a reporter, and McKenna covered McGurl's early days with the river.

"The thing that always impressed me most about Bernie was that ... when you cover environmental issues, it deals a lot with the policy and how the government addresses it, and Bernie, was very aggressive in those realms," McKenna said. "But at the same time, he was somewhat different than, that he understood it was also a hands-on enterprise. He was the guy who was wading in the river, picking up the debris and enlisting other people to do the same thing."

McGurl's energy and approach worked better than anyone could have anticipated, he said.

McKenna grew up in North Scranton along Leggetts Creek, a tributary of the river. He said most people who grew up near the river knew not to go near it.

Robert Durkin is the CEO of the Greater Scranton Chamber of Commerce. He grew up in Olyphant and also remembers the polluted river. The back of factories faced it so they could discharged waste into the water, he said.

Durkin was the first executive director of the Lackawanna Valley Heritage Authority (LHVA) and worked alongside McGurl.

"Without question, Bernie McGurl is one of the most important public figures in Lackawanna County in the last 50 years," he said, "and I mean it, sincerely."

He said it's not just about how the LRCA improved the river, but how those improvements changed the quality of life for residents.

"I point a finger right to Bernie," said Durkin.

McKenna walks his dog along the Heritage Trail — it was created and now maintained by the LHVA — that runs along the Lackawanna from Carbondale to Taylor. The improvements are visible. People are riding their bikes and fishing for trout.

"The progress is, honestly, among all the things that that have happened over the last 30 years in the region, that that is one of the most remarkable," said McKenna.


McGurl sat at a wooden table at Trax Bar + Kitchen in the Radisson Lackawanna Station Hotel. At his hands was a blue folder full of poems. Black and white and faded color photos of a young McGurl with his brothers as well as friends Ron Semian and Craig Czury were scattered on the table.

They talked about poetry, Vietnam draft numbers that hung over their head and of course, the LRCA.

“We didn't want to have the LRCA as a not in my backyard kind of environmental group … the river was messed up. It was messed up for 100 years. We could do all the protesting we wanted about that. But it's not going to get the river cleaned up," said McGurl. "The river is going to get cleaned up by getting people involved with cleaning it up … So that was the idea was to be a proactive organization rather than a reactive organization.”

McGurl met Czury and Semian in the 70s. They were involved in Scranton’s arts scene, specifically poetry and theater.

They're lifelong supporters of not only the LRCA but McGurl's poetry.

"When people tell you 'oh nothing changes, everything's, everything's terrible' ... this is a prime example of how things have changed," said Semian. "In my lifetime, I'm amazed to see how it's changed ... to go from that dirty, dirty river to one of the best trout fishing streams in America ... it's an example of what can be done."


McGurl is always looking forward, including his work alongside Jones. She impressed him from the start.

"She convinced me that she had the right stuff," he said. "I want to see her successful in this position ... because that's ultimately going to be the success of the organization going forward into the next generation. And we've got an ambitious agenda.”

Jones wants to get moving on the North Scranton Riverfront Project this year.

It took the LRCA 30 years to acquire the property from Diamond Avenue to Parker Street in Scranton. McGurl estimates the project will cost $15 million and take 20 years. The goal is to extend the Heritage Trail and create connectors to it and build a park. The project ultimately will remove blight, restore the environment and provide more river access, according to the LRCA's summary plan.

Bernie McGurl, former executive director of the Lackawanna River Conservation Association, flips through a summary plan for a riverfront project in North Scranton.
Kat Bolus
Bernie McGurl, former executive director of the Lackawanna River Conservation Association, flips through a summary plan for a riverfront project in North Scranton.

Jones also is excited about the organization's preserves on Moosic Mountain.

Despite having Lackawanna River in its name, the LRCA doesn’t just preserve the lowest point of the valley, they work on the entire watershed and that includes the highest points — the mountains.

The Lackawanna Valley Conservancy is the LRCA's land trust. They recently preserved 262 acres on Moosic Mountain that is home to rare habitats with pitch pine and scrub oak, McGurl said. It has shallow soils and rock outcrops impacted and influenced by glaciers. The newly conserved land has bat hotels, which are protective sites for bats to breed.

"It's great to kind of step back and look at the bigger watershed," said Jones.

Through a grant, LRCA plans to purchase and renovate the former Hudson Coal Company property on Depot Street in North Scranton. The organization wants to move its headquarters there and open up the rest of the space for other groups and events. McGurl estimates that project could cost around $3 million.

Bernie McGurl, senior project manager for the Lackawanna River Conservation Association, takes measurements inside the
Kat Bolus
Bernie McGurl, senior project manager for the Lackawanna River Conservation Association, takes measurements inside the former Hudson Coal Company property on Depot Street in North Scranton. The organization received a grant to purchase the building and move its headquarters there.

He’s always advocating for more funding for the organization. Most employees are part time and to do the type of bold work they want to get done, they need more full-time people.

And then there’s the Old Forge Bore Hole.

Mining was a wet business. Groundwater dripped into the mines and had to be pumped out. The last coal company abandoned its mines in November 1960. And, as McGurl describes it, they shut off their pumps and left.

"And over the winter of (19)61-62, the mine filled with water, over 60-million gallons a day and over that winter, filled up and started coming out every which way it could," he said. "And it was causing lots of property damage.”

That decade, the Old Forge Bore Hole was drilled in the lowest part of the valley. It’s about 4 miles from the confluence of the Susquehanna River. From there, millions of gallons of water drain from the mine pool, putting iron and other minerals in the river. It turns the rocks orange and pollutes both rivers and the Chesapeake Bay. McGurl believes it needs a $40 million dollar mine treatment plant.

"We're hoping, if we're lucky in the next 15 years, we'll have a mine water plant and get this cleaned up and put some people to work as well," he told a group of high school students.


McGurl said living to 100 is a goal. It's part of what keeps him going with the LRCA's long-term projects.

"But being practical and realistic, if it happens, great, if it doesn't, it doesn't," he said. "I remember what it was like when I was a kid growing up in the Lackawanna Valley and Scranton ... the coal industry was on its way out. It was very dirty. It caused a lot of environmental damage and a lot of human damage over the 140 or so years that it was an activity here. So it was grim when I was a kid ... and I wanted to make it better for future generations ... that's what motivates me."

Before his involvement with the river, Bernie was at a dinner party in 1987. There he was given a Koan, which is a Zen Buddhist statement meant to provoke thought and contemplation.

"The Koan that my selection revealed was to save the river, save the mountain," he said. "I didn't understand it. What relevance does this have to me? When I got involved with the LRCA I had a flash one day, wow that Koan."

Poetry, metaphor and symbolism drove McGurl's involvement with LRCA, the river and the environment in general.

"It's been very rewarding for me, personally, I think on an emotional basis and psychological basis to, to have done all that work."

Kat Bolus is the community reporter for the newly-formed WVIA News Team. She is a former reporter and columnist at The Times-Tribune, a Scrantonian and cat mom.

You can email Kat at katbolus@wvia.org