Ryan Smith and Hallie Taylor own the Marietta Adventure Company. (Credit: Julie Grant/TheAllegheny Front)

One Ohio River town that’s using outdoor recreation to boost its economy

"If towns are not using the river to help their economic state, they're not thinking outside of the box"

Every September, tourists flock to historic Marietta, along the banks of the Ohio River, for a celebration that harkens back to the Ohio Valley's early days.

The 44th annual Ohio River Sternwheel Festival held this year attracted an estimated 30,000 visitors to the small southeastern Ohio city. The streets buzzed with activity as vendors sold popcorn, french fries and locally made sandwiches.

More than 100 people sat along the riverbank on lawn chairs and blankets in the grass, looking out at a docked barge, where civic leaders hailed the opening of festivities.

"We're going to have great weather this whole weekend, and we're so excited," said Cindy Hall, who volunteered to lead the event.

Standing at the riverfront plaza, Hall talked with Carrie Ankrom, president of the Marietta Chamber of Commerce about how the festival benefits local businesses.

"It sells out the hotel rooms, the campsites," Ankrom said. "I mean, Marietta is full this weekend."

This is more than a fun celebration. It's part of the city's economic development strategy. While many nearby communities are banking their futures on manufacturing, power generation and the coming plastics production, Marietta is also focused on river tourism and outdoor recreation.

Ankrom said besides the Sternwheel Festival, Marietta attracts tourists to the river for events focused on speed boats and kayaks, which has helped this city of nearly 14,000 residents with its downtown renewal.

"Well if you take a walk down Front Street, a couple of years ago we had a lot of empty buildings," Ankrom said.

More recently, though, the downtown has been gaining some steam. Historic brick buildings have been renovated for offices and for stores that sell women's clothing, chocolate and local wines. The restaurant of a century-old hotel looks out over the Ohio River. All of this has contributed to Marietta's designation by the Travel Channel as one of the country's 50 most charming small towns.

Tourists on the Valley Gem Sternwheeler, facing the city of Marietta during the Ohio RiverSternwheel Festival. (Credit: Julie Grant/The Allegheny Front)

Marietta has gotten more national attention as the focus of the best-selling book, "The Pioneers," by famed historian, David McCullough, as the first settlement of the Northwest Territory at the confluence of the Ohio and Muskingum rivers.

Those rivers still define the city.

"From our perspective, having the rivers here is really vital to our local economy," said Cristie Thomas, of the nonprofit Marietta Main Street. "It's beautiful to look at, and folks adore it."

But Thomas noted there's also a downside to living on the confluence of two rivers: "...That's flooding obviously."

Nearby cities, like Parkersburg, West Virginia, have floodwalls, to help prevent the Ohio River from overflowing into its downtown. But Ankrom, of the Chamber of Commerce, said Marietta has resisted that.

"I think if towns are not using the river to help their economic state, they're not thinking outside of the box," she said.

Ankrom said encouraging river access is not just for tourists. A community leadership group has been gathering data on how residents want the area to develop.

"We have surveyed so many people in Marietta and in this area … they want to be outside," she said. "People are more active, they want to enjoy the outdoors, they want to enjoy the scenery. They don't want to be stuck inside anymore."

Outdoor adventure in Marietta

Carrie Ankrom of the Marietta Chamber of Commerce and other officials kick off the SternwheelFestival. (Credit: Julie Grant/The Allegheny Front)

On a late summer afternoon, Hallie Taylor, co-owner of Marietta Adventure Company, a kayak and bike shop, showed one customer how to attach a cell phone holder to her bike handles and greeted another family returning their rental kayaks after their first time on the river.

Taylor and co-owner Ryan Smith both grew up in Marietta and moved away. He went to California, while she lived in cities from Beijing to Brooklyn. But they say they came back to Marietta with "fresh eyes," of how they could make careers by helping people to get outside.

Smith said 14 years ago, when he started renting kayaks here, it was a foreign idea to many in the area.

"People came up to me and said, 'Are you even allowed to kayak on the Ohio River?'" he said. As an outdoor ambassador, he lets them know, "Of course you are. It's a public waterway."

Since then, outdoor recreation has been growing in popularity around the country. In 2017, outdoor recreation, including activities like boating, biking, festivals and associated lodging, accounted for more than $10 billion of Ohio's economy, a growth of 10% from five years earlier. And in Washington County, home to Marietta, overall tourism brought in nearly $230 million in total sales in 2017, more than any other in the 18-county southeastern Ohio region.

Taylor said in 2012, the shop in Marietta started with three employees. Today, 15 people work there, some seasonally or part time.

Carrie Ankrom, president of the Marietta Chamber of Commerce, says attracting tourists toevents like the Sternwheel Festival is helping to revitalize the city's downtown. (Credit: Julie Grant/The Allegheny Front)

"What is so much fun for us [is] to be able to see people get out there and try something for the first time and to just be glowing from the experience," she said.

But Marietta still exists in a region considered to be in decline. Population is down in the city and most counties in the Appalachian Ohio region, including Washington County.

John Carey, director of the Ohio Governor's Office of Appalachia, said residents often leave the area, and it's especially difficult to attract new talent.

"Unfortunately, too many times all they hear is the negative stories about the opioid epidemic or lack of access for certain things," he said.

Those certain things include the lack of high speed internet access in parts of the region and the lack of sidewalks and even street lights in nearby towns.

Marietta, Ohio at the mouth of the Muskingum River as it enters the Ohio. (Credit: Christopher Boswell/Marietta Main Street)

While the region has lost jobs in coal and manufacturing over the years, Washington and other counties along the Ohio River hope the coming petrochemical industry will benefit their local economies in the coming years. For Marietta, leaders see this growth as an opportunity to bring in new visitors and residents.

Carey said Appalachian communities in this region need professionals — like new nurses and engineers.

"So having a nice downtown that people feel comfortable with and that has some momentum like Marietta is really important," he said, "...because we can bring the jobs into the area. But if we don't have people that are willing to stay, especially the millennials, or if we can't attract the talent to the community … that puts a damper on our efforts."

At the Marietta Adventure Company, Taylor said she likes the direction Marietta is headed — supporting downtown businesses, building new miles of mountain bike trails and providing access to the rivers. She hopes this will attract younger, outdoor-minded residents to the area.

"I want more people like me to want to live here, so I have a personal, vested interest in that growth, too," she said.

Julie Grant, managing editor for The Allegheny Front, authored this story. She can be reached at julie@alleghenyfront.org.

Good River: Stories of the Ohio is a series about the environment, economy and culture of the Ohio River watershed, produced by seven nonprofit newsrooms. To see more, please visit ohiowatershed.org.

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Nurdle Patrol participant Sam Sugarek shows off a nurdle found along the beaches of Texas. (Credit: Jace Tunnell)

Ever hear of a nurdle? This new form of pollution could be coming to the Ohio River

When the petrochemical plant being built by Shell Chemical Appalachia in Beaver County is complete, it's anticipated to bring 600 jobs as well as spinoff industries. But some researchers and activists warn that it could also bring a new type of pollution to the Ohio River Valley — nurdles.

First sightings of nurdles 

Nurdles are tiny plastic pellets similar in size to a lentil and produced at petrochemical plants. They're the raw material of the plastics industry, the building blocks of everything from car parts to keyboards to grocery store bags. Jace Tunnell is the reserve director at the Marine Science Institute at the University of Texas at Austin. Before last year, he had only heard of nurdles.

But walking along the beach at Corpus Christi, Texas, in 2018, he saw nurdles littering the high tide line.

"And at first, I wasn't sure, you know, are they fish eggs?" Tunnell said. "...When I picked one up and squeezed it, it was really hard. I knew exactly what that was. It was a nurdle."

Tunnell described it as unbelievable how many opaque pellets he saw on the beach. There were thousands, likely more. "I was kind of in shock," he said.

Creating nurdle patrol 

Tunnell sought to better understand nurdle pollution: How many of these were really washing up on the Texas Gulf Coast? So, he started surveying the beaches. He also created Nurdle Patrol, a citizen science project that teaches people how to find nurdles and document their presence.

The protocol: If a nurdle is found, start the clock and search for 10 minutes. Then input the total number collected into Nurdle Patrol's database. Boy Scout troops, families and others have done surveys along the Gulf Coast. One thing Tunnell has learned from this: "Almost every single beach that you go to has pellets on it," he said.

"These pellets don't break down over time," he said, adding that it can take hundreds of years for nurdles to break into smaller pieces.

When birds, fish and other species eat bits of plastic, it can make them think they're full and die of malnutrition. Microplastics, including nurdles, are also known to attract toxins that can accumulate in wildlife.

One study found some fish sold for human consumption in the United States contained plastic debris. The World Health Organization says more research is needed on the health impacts to humans.

More plastics on the way

These tanks, shown here in June 2019, will hold the plastic pellets produced by Shell's ethane cracker. According to Shell, 1.6 million metric tons of plastic will be produced there annually. (Credit: Reid Frazier/The Allegheny Front)

Plastic production is ramping up nationally. Fueled by the boom of shale gas production, 334 projects related to plastics have been announced since 2010, according to the American Chemistry Council [ACC], a trade group that includes the plastics industry.

One of those projects is the ethane cracker Shell is building along the Ohio River in Beaver County, north of Pittsburgh. It will take ethane from the region's natural gas to produce nearly 1.6 million metric tons of plastic pellets a year. That equals an estimated trillions of nurdles annually.

In an email, Shell says it has pledged to prevent accidental loss of plastic pellets from its manufacturing facility into the environment, using industry safety and production measures.

The ACC along with the Plastics Industry Association run a program called Operation Clean Sweep, developed by the plastics industry. Shell is a member of Operation Clean Sweep.

"Our goal is to move towards zero pellet loss to the environment," said Keith Christman, the ACC's managing director of plastics markets.

But environmental groups have doubts.

"I think that once this facility is up and running, people will start to see tiny little bits of plastic, these nurdles that are lining the waterways where the stormwater drains into," said Emily Jeffers, attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. "Once you see them, you're going to see millions of them."

It's easy for these tiny, lightweight pellets to escape into the environment. When millions of pellets are being loaded into trucks, train cars or ships for transport, they easily spill. When it rains, these spilled pellets can wash into waterways.

The Center for Biological Diversity submitted a legal petition supported by 280 environmental, public health, Indigenous and community groups around the country to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency [EPA] in July. Among other things, Jeffers said they want regulations revised to specifically prohibit discharge of nurdles into waterways.

"And so we've petitioned the EPA to upgrade the standards, which are 40 years old," Jeffers said, "...because this industry has been ignored for decades. And the standards in place now don't protect humans or the environment."

To bolster her point, Jeffers pointed to Lavaca Bay, Texas, a couple hours drive north of Corpus Christi, where Tunnell first found nurdles on the beach.

In October, Formosa Plastics settled a lawsuit with Lavaca Bay residents and environmental activists for $50 million after a judge ruled the company illegally discharged billions of plastic pellets. Residents there had urged state and federal regulators to hold Formosa accountable for a decade.

"Yes, there are standards right now," Jeffers said. "They're just woefully out of date."

According to an EPA spokesperson, the agency is considering the petition.

A 'valuable' product

Nurdles break down into smaller particles of plastic and can be harmful to wildlife that mistake them for food. (Credit: Jace Tunnell)

Manufacturers don't want their product to escape, Christman said.

"Let's remember that this material is very valuable. It's something that our members want to keep control over," he said.

Operation Clean Sweep has developed best practices for plastic makers, like how to design a facility and train employees to avoid pellet spills and how to clean up if spills do happen.

Christman said there's no need for the EPA to create new rules prohibiting nurdle loss.

"It is already regulated through the Clean Water Act and stormwater permits, so this material and loss of it at a facility is regulated already," he said.

In Texas, Tunnell wants water permits for plastic manufacturers to be clear that the goal is no pellet loss. Despite the efforts of Operation Clean Sweep, nurdles continue to accumulate in waterways in Europe, Australia and the United States.

"That tells me that the voluntary program is not working," he said. "And so what happens when education doesn't work anymore and voluntary programs don't work any more? Then you need to go to stricter regulations."

Tunnell said the voluntary best management practices laid out by Operation Clean Sweep should be enforced as regulations. California is the only state to specifically regulate nurdles.

Is the Ohio Valley protected from nurdle pollution?

Jace Tunnell (left) and Sam Sugarek scour a beach in Texas in search of nurdles. The Nurdle Patrol protocol calls for documenting the number of nurdles found in 10 minutes of searching. (Photo: Jace Tunnell)

As the plastics industry gears up in the Ohio Valley, regulators say water permits for the crackers in Beaver County and Belmont County, Ohio, already address nurdle pollution.

Elizabeth Rementer, press secretary for the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection [DEP], wrote in an email that the state is not considering adding a zero pellet requirement to permits. She pointed to the state's regulations that limit floating material, like nurdles, from entering waterways in amounts that could be harmful to humans or wildlife.

"If nurdles were being discharged in an industrial effluent to surface water, the Department would restrict or eliminate the discharge," according to Rementer's email. The agency did not respond to a request for an interview.

DEP's water discharge permit for the Shell cracker outlines best management practices for stormwater, but does not list nurdles or plastic pellets specifically.

"The facility's plans include a stormwater collection system that would capture any spilled plastics prior to their entry into their stormwater system," according to Rementer's email. "In addition, stormwater flowing from potentially contaminated areas on the site are treated prior to their discharge under Shell's NPDES permit, further minimizing the risk of nurdle discharges."

In Ohio, the state EPA last year approved water permits for another ethane cracker in Belmont County, southeast of Pittsburgh, near Wheeling, West Virginia. In an email, the Ohio EPA said the plant will include secondary containment and catch basins with screens to prevent nurdles from being discharged into the Ohio River.

Christman with Operation Clean Sweep said it is rolling out a new program next year to its members, including Shell, to better track pellet loss. "Members … will submit data [to] state regulatory agencies on the amount of pellets lost to the environment due to an accidental release and the amount of material recovered within a facility handling resin pellets that's recycled."

More than 15 organizations in the Ohio River watershed have signed the Center for Biological Diversity's petition demanding more regulation of nurdles from petrochemical plants.

"I am extremely concerned about plastics and especially microplastics and nurdles," said Randi Pokladnik, a representative of the Ohio Valley Environmental Council, one of the groups that signed the petition. "We do need to get some baseline data on the Ohio."

Tunnell recommended that people in Pennsylvania and Ohio use his Nurdle Patrol protocol to gather data before petrochemical plants start operating. Showing that there are no nurdles on the banks of the Ohio River now can be a powerful tool to hold industry accountable later, he said.

"Even zeros are data."

Julie Grant, managing editor for The Allegheny Front, authored this story. She can be reached at julie@alleghenyfront.org.

Good River: Stories of the Ohio is a series about the environment, economy and culture of the Ohio River watershed, produced by seven nonprofit newsrooms. To see more, please visit ohiowatershed.org.


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