Here’s How You Can Help ZAP the Blackstone River of Pollution

Fifty years after the original, Operation Zap a new generation is leading the charge to protect the Blackstone River from pollution.

Courtesy of  David Lawlor/@filmmakerdave

In 1972, 10,000 volunteers gathered on the banks of the Blackstone River as part of Operation ZAP, a one-day cleanup that remains among the largest and most successful environmental events in Rhode Island history.

Later this month, a coalition of local organizations is hoping to repeat the feat. ZAP 50, an anniversary cleanup commemorating the original event, will bring together residents, businesses and activists on Aug. 27 in the ongoing effort to Zero Away Pollution in the Blackstone River watershed.

“This year being the fiftieth, we want to rally again, and we’re hoping to generate the 10,000 volunteers,” says Donna Kaehler, director of Keep Blackstone Valley Beautiful, which is spearheading the effort in Rhode Island. “We’re asking people to get involved throughout the watershed, and we’re going all the way up to Worcester, Mass.”

By the 1970s, the Blackstone River — known as the birthplace of the American Industrial Revolution — had become so polluted that residents could watch the water change colors depending on the chemicals running in it that day, according to Bob Billington, president of the Blackstone Valley Tourism Council.


Courtesy of Donna Kaehler/Blackstone Valley Tourism Council

“Whatever you wanted to get rid of, you threw it in the Blackstone,” he says. “The filthier it got, the filthier we treated it.”

In 1971, Pawtucket resident David Rosser — a transplant from Mississippi and executive director of the fledgling Blackstone River Watershed Association — began lobbying local and state officials to support a massive cleanup that would be known as Operation ZAP. Thousands joined in, dragging cars, appliances and even a school bus from the river and planting parks along the water’s edge. The Providence Journal-Bulletin ran front-page articles promoting the event, and folk singer Pete Seeger performed a celebratory concert for volunteers.


Courtesy of Donna Kaehler/Blackstone Valley Tourism Council

Fifty years later, their legacy carries on in the groups that protect the river along its length. The growth of the environmental movement — Congress passed the Clean Water Act in 1972, and Earth Day celebrated its fiftieth anniversary in 2020 — has led to stronger river protections, but pollution remains a concern. The Blackstone River is now home to boating and other recreational activities, but it’s not yet safe for swimming or drinking, and Kaehler’s new focus is on tackling plastic and other litter in communities throughout the watershed.

“That’s the challenge of today. It’s still pollution. It looks small, it doesn’t seem that bad, but it is,” she says.

In addition to the August cleanup, the organization is coordinating a Sept. 10 celebration at Slater Mill in Pawtucket recognizing all those who have contributed to the river’s health over the years. Steve Smith and the Nakeds will headline an array of local music acts in a throwback to the movement’s celebratory roots.

“At fifty years, we’re happy with where it’s been, but we’re not done,” Kaehler says.