By Pat Loeb

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — Student activists invoked Philadelphia history, Tuesday, to make their case for fully funding the Environmental Protection Agency by highlighting the mucky past of the Schuylkill River.

Credit: Pat Loeb

“The fluid with which I am writing, I have labeled Schuylkill ink,” Lela Gardner said as she read a letter to the editor, from 1896, written with, yes, Schuylkill River water.

“This is one of the new uses of our celebrated Schuylkill water,” she said.

Water department historian Adam Levine says that wasn’t the worst problem back then.

“Typhoid fever killed 27,000 people from sewage getting into the water supply,” he said.

And Levine says you don’t have to go back that far for the river’s bad old days.

Credit: Pat Loeb

“Before 1950, we would not be standing here by the River,” he said. “It was so polluted, it smelled bad, people just wanted to get away from it.”

What made the difference, says Levine, was the EPA, the Clean Water Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, as the city continues to improve its drinking water, currently fulfilling an EPA mandate to eliminate combined sewer overflow.

Levine joined students in urging the city’s congressional delegation to reject cuts to EPA’s budget, which he says is not a partisan issue.

“Everybody wants clean water, nobody wants sewage in the water,” he said.