12 February 2020
The Kinzua Dam, which protects Pittsburgh from flooding and pollution, took thousands of acres of the Seneca's territory and destroyed nine communities. We look at the past and future of the Seneca Nation.
Anthony Wolkiewicz had his picture taken with Fred Rogers while working at WQED in 1977.
Rogers made a special point to ask about Wolkiewicz's youngest son. "Who is this? I don't remember him in my neighborhood," Wolkiewicz remembers him saying in the same voice he used on Mister Rogers' Neighborhood.
It's sheer luck that Wolkiewicz still has that photo: he lost many of his cherished photographs when his basement flooded in June 2017. More than 2 inches of rain fell in an hour, he said, and Saw Mill Run Creek behind his house "became a raging rapids."
"It crested over its banks, and I got 4 feet of water in my basement," Wolkiewicz, 65, recalled.
He watched as a television was carried along the stream behind his house. The street in front of his house flooded, too, so water was pouring in from both directions.
"It's like if a dam was up the road and someone opened the floodgates. Up it came and over the bank, and done deal," he said. Insurance money covered his major appliances but not many of his other smaller items, including his electronics, which filled a dumpster. He estimates he lost $20,000 worth of items. The flood water was mixed with sewage, so his five nephews helped to spray the entire basement down with bleach water. He was without air conditioning for two weeks, which exacerbated a breathing condition.
Wolkiewicz bought his home along Provost Road in the Pittsburgh neighborhood of Overbrook in 2011 for about $34,000. He said his neighbors told him then that flooding wasn't a big problem. But in June 2018, his house flooded again.
Now when it rains, he stays home to pile sand bags and make sure debris from the flooding in his basement doesn't block up the sewage drain.
Anthony Wolkiewicz photographed behind his house on Provost Road in the flood-prone Overbrook neighborhood of Pittsburgh. (Credit: Ryan Loew/PublicSource)
More rain has fallen in the Pittsburgh area over the last two years than at any other time in recorded history. Two of these storms have resulted in deaths in the past decade, as drivers were caught on roadways that flooded.
The area where Wolkiewicz lives along Saw Mill Run in the South Hills is one of the worst in the Pittsburgh region for flood risk. But it's not the only area. Flooding has become pervasive, with massive damage to the suburbs of Bethel Park and Upper St. Clair and whole sections of towns like Etna and Millvale.
Stories like Wolkiewicz's have become common across the region.
Wolkiewicz could build a wall in his backyard, he said, but that would just push the flooding down into his neighbor's yard. That's the same problem facing local boroughs and agencies like the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority [PWSA]. If you stop flooding in one location, how do you create a permanent fix that doesn't just make rushing water your neighbor's problem?
And in Saw Mill Run, it's particularly complicated: the houses across the street from Wolkiewicz are located in the borough of Whitehall, with a totally different local government. Saw Mill Run has become one of the region's most important test cases for what the whole region may need to consider: working proactively across political boundaries to address the flooding.
Experts and local community leaders have been developing plans but still don't have the support to implement them at the scale that is needed. Possible solutions include buying up perpetually flooded houses and businesses, turning sections of the watershed back into natural floodplains instead of concrete lots, and developing flood control projects that cross municipal boundaries. But doing so is easier said than done in a county that's one of the most fragmented in the country.
Otherwise, residents like Wolkiewicz and his neighbors are left dreading rain that could mean a loss of property, or worse. Last summer, he paid $1,000 to turn his garage door into a brick wall in the hopes it will keep the water out. He won't know if it will work until the next flood comes.
In July, about 40 concerned citizens from Overbrook showed up for a community meeting to hear what local leaders plan to do about Saw Mill Run.
Residents often interrupted presentations from PWSA to talk about flooding problems on their own streets.
Kate Mechler, the deputy director of engineering for PWSA, said the agency would try to respond to each of the specific complaints. "We have started a stormwater investigation team," she said. "This team is hammered. We get a lot of calls."
PWSA couldn't quickly fix each of their complaints, Mechler said, without looking at how those fixes would affect their neighbors and others in the watershed. "We don't want to keep pushing water where it can't go," she said.
Anthony Coghill, the Pittsburgh city councilman for most of the Saw Mill Run area, sees the problem as nearly beyond repair. As a roofer, he said he understands how water moves across roofs, down gutters and into the streets and sewers. He thinks there is only one answer.
"I'm tired of saying, 'We'll get an engineer out here,'" Coghill said. "The bottom line for me, when I see the devastation going on … Buy out."
The Saw Mill Run watershed includes more than 14 Pittsburgh neighborhoods and a dozen municipalities. Coghill proposed that the city allocate $2.1 million to buy out the homes of city residents with the most flood-prone properties on Provost Road. Although Coghill pushed for the idea with the city, its 2020 budget did not include this funding.
Steve Kaduck, who runs an auto upholstery business in the neighborhood, agreed with Coghill that the best solution was to buy out the Provost Road homes and turn it into a basin to catch floodwater. "Until they find a retaining space or a new pipe going to the river, it ain't going to stop," he said.
But he's seen flooding there for 50 years and nothing has been done. He said he feels frustrated that their problems have recently taken a backseat to flooding in suburban communities, like Bethel Park and Mt. Lebanon. "We don't make the news anymore," he said. "We're not news. We're old news."
Ana Flores, the Ohio River sewer shed coordinator for the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority. (Credit: Jay Manning/PublicSource)
Back in October 2018, Lisa Werder Brown, the executive director of the Watersheds of South Pittsburgh, drove along Saw Mill Run Boulevard and started counting used car lots, which she perceives as a sign that new businesses are wary of flooding risks.
To really turn Saw Mill Run around, she said, the region needs to turn large chunks of the valley next to the creek back into a natural floodplain. She said it should become natural parkland that would become an amenity people would want to visit rather than avoid.
But doing so would require a large investment to buy properties already there. According to Brown, the federal government finds more value in buying out property in wealthier neighborhoods, like the agency recently did in Upper St. Clair, an affluent suburb outside of Pittsburgh, she said.
In October, Ana Flores, the Ohio River sewer shed coordinator for PWSA, visited a small stretch of Saw Mill Run Creek. So much water pours into the stream during storms, moving at such a high speed, she said, that it's ripping soil from the bank and pulling it into the stream. That's exposing tree roots and causing whole trees to fall in.
She pointed to a tree log that was jammed up against a small bridge. The water in a previous storm was strong enough to carry the trunk downstream, she said. So much soil is eroding that eventually the roadway next to the stream may start to cave in.
PWSA's plan for this 200 feet of creek is to change the angle of the bank to rise gradually, like a skateboard ramp, rather than like the vertical wall it is now. That will slow the water down and prevent erosion. It's a small project for a creek that has problems all along its 9-mile length.
Flores hopes to return to build a more ambitious stormwater project. On the other side of the bank, 5 acres of gravel and brush have sat empty for more than two decades. The federal government purchased 20 properties there that flooded repeatedly in the mid-1990s, with the stipulation that the land could only be used for natural purposes.
Ansonia Place is 5 acres of gravel and brush that could be turned into a floodplain off of Saw Mill Run Creek in Pittsburgh. (Credit: Jay Manning/PublicSource)
The City of Pittsburgh now owns the property, known as Ansonia Place. If turned into a natural floodplain, the abandoned neighborhood could function like a giant bowl in heavy rain, soaking up and slowing down rainwater before it floods the streets and homes downstream.
Brown said PWSA's projects so far have been relatively small and even the smaller communities in Saw Mill Run have realized they need to build bigger projects closer to the stream. "Folks have realized that they could dump exorbitant amounts of money into projects within their own communities and still not make a dent," she said.
PWSA has been meeting with 11 other municipalities upstream of Pittsburgh since 2015, trying to create a single vision for the watershed. The "integrated watershed" group is looking to get regulatory approval for a pollution credit system, so each municipality could get credit for cleaning up the creek with regulators, even if a project is sited outside its own boundaries.
One hope, Flores said, is that the integrated watershed plan they are developing will allow them to start building stormwater projects upstream. "We're waiting to see how much work we can do up at the top, so we can slowly make our way down and do it in an order that makes sense for the watershed," she said.
PWSA is also negotiating with the City of Pittsburgh to determine who will be responsible for which aspects of flood control. Right now, PWSA only has authority from the state to take on projects that improve the water quality above ground or stop flooding in basements and its underground pipes.
Beth Dutton, the senior group manager for stormwater at PWSA, said the current lack of clarity about which agency is in charge of flooding in the region means there isn't a coordinated response.
"It's kind of the Wild Wild West for flood management," she said.
The Saw Mill Run Creek has become a flood risk for the Overbrook neighborhood of Pittsburgh. (Credit: Ryan Loew/PublicSource)
Several community watershed groups have formed in the recent past to tackle flooding challenges, but not all communities have one.
Back in 2005, after heavy flooding from Hurricane Ivan, residents formed a watershed association for Big Sewickley Creek, about 20 miles northwest of Pittsburgh. The group fizzled quickly.
Last summer, about 25 community members showed up to talk again about the future of Big Sewickley Creek after two years of dramatic rainfall. Gary Sherman and Frank Akers, two residents who attended, are not typical environmentalists who live on the creek: they are hunters who hope to get royalties from fracking on their land.
They're worried that new housing developments upstream are causing more water and construction material to end up in the stream. The flooding problem keeps getting worse, they said, and they want to protect the land near their homes.
In 2018, Donna Pearson and Melissa Mason decided that they needed to do something to protect their community after heavy rains during a July storm flooded Millvale, a town next to Pittsburgh and Etna. They formed Girty's Run Watershed Association.
Pearson said she spent whole days working on the watershed association in its initial days and would be interested in working on the issue more if she could get funding. For now, she is focused on educating residents. "We are never going to fix the flooding," she said. So instead she hopes to "improve the response to it, and improve the health of the stream and the communities around it."
Although these actions, on their own, may not lead to great change, a report released last year by the Water Center at the University of Pennsylvania and The Heinz Endowments* suggests these individuals may be paving the only path forward for the region. The report recommended investing in an incubator and an activist network.
"Within these local laboratories are the next generation of water leaders who, in the absence of political will among large institutions, must be nurtured and equipped to lead in 10, 20 or 30 years when generational changes are likely to change the political calculus," the report said.
Some changes are being made regionally. In 2020, the Allegheny County Sanitary Authority [ALCOSAN] is taking over responsibility for the region's largest sewage lines from local governments after years of recommendations and negotiations. It's the beginning of a more centralized sewage system. Increasing pressure from government regulators to clean up polluted water is also spurring between $2 billion to $6 billion in investments over the next two decades by local municipalities and agencies like ALCOSAN and PWSA.
Etna Borough Manager Mary Ellen Ramage said she believes local leaders will have to give up some control. Etna's borough offices flooded up to its light switches in 2004. Since, Ramage has learned that stemming the flooding in Etna depends on fixes made by municipalities miles upstream. Etna is at the end of a sieve, she said: with less than 1% of the land in her watershed, most of the floodwater originates upstream.
While experts have recommended changes to Allegheny County's fragmentation for decades, there is precedent for regionalization. In 2018, the Wyoming Valley Sanitary Authority in northeastern Pennsylvania brought together 32 small communities to collectively manage their stormwater responsibilities. The agency's leaders noted that they're collectively saving as much as 50% of their costs by working together.
The new authority can build stormwater projects "anywhere in the watershed," Adrienne Vicari, a consultant for the authority, said at an October 2018 sewage conference in Monroeville. That freedom allows the authority to tackle the region's biggest water problems at the lowest price.
But local leaders aren't so optimistic.
Researchers of the 2019 Water Center/Heinz report interviewed more than 40 of the region's key water stakeholders and found little to no interest in moving forward with a regional stormwater agency.
Instead, the report said, the region must foster a bottom-up approach that will pave the way. The fragmentation of local government is often thought of "as a source of political inertia and a hindrance to action," the report said. "However, opportunity comes not from obliterating these boundaries … but in leveraging local energies."
A map of the Saw Mill Run Watershed from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Thomas Batroney attends a lot of public meetings in the Pittsburgh region for his job as a senior project engineer for a global engineering, management and economic development firm. He started noticing that "everyone is talking about the same problem." In August 2019, he began cataloguing all of Allegheny County's major flooding events in a blog he calls The Pittsburgh Urban Flooding Journal.
He created detailed illustrations of rainfall patterns and inserted links to news stories and videos. He's in the process of adding a map layer that shows what streets flooding has been reported on.
While each of the individual storms can seem like isolated incidents, Batroney's blog organizes them into a larger narrative of a region battered by persistent, unrelenting flooding. "Localized flash flooding in the Pittsburgh region is a serious epidemic and chronic illness," he wrote in his first blog entry.
Batroney said he thinks the region needs a flood control or stormwater district, like the ones found in Houston, Phoenix, Denver or Chicago.
After a giant flood in Pittsburgh in 1936, Batroney said, the region came together to solve the flooding problems from its three major rivers. The flood killed 62 people, injured 500 and left more than 135,000 homeless in the region. The Flood Commission of Pittsburgh, which originally only covered the city, expanded to include more than 400 groups across the region. Together, they built support for the construction of 13 large-scale flood protection projects upstream of Pittsburgh.
Batroney said it's time for the region to come together again before another tragedy.
"It's not going to get any better … unless we do something, especially with the way the climate projections are looking," he said. "This isn't going to fix itself. It's only going to get worse."
*The Heinz Endowments also provides funding to PublicSource.
Oliver Morrison is PublicSource's environment and health reporter. He can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @ORMorrison.
This story was fact-checked by Sierra Smith.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.
All Tim Guilfoile wants to do is fish. Before his retirement, he had two careers: one in business and one in water quality activism.
Now, he serves as the director of marketing and communications for Northern Kentucky Fly Fishers. "We fly fish for bass, blue gill, striped bass and others. Not just trout. I fish on the Ohio River."
Will he eat the fish he catches in the Ohio River?
"Oh God, no!" he said.
The Clean Water Act has regulated the levels of pollutants discharged into U.S. waterways since 1972, but sport anglers on the Ohio River still have to check the Ohio River Fish Consumption Advisories to see if their catch is safe to eat. Having worked as deputy director for the Sierra Club "Protecting America's Waters" Campaign and the Sierra Club Water Sentinels, Guilfoile knows the contamination risks of fishing on the Ohio.
"But the scary part," he said, "is that most people who fish are not aware of these advisories although there are notices with fish and wildlife agencies."
The Clean Water Act's original goal was to completely eliminate discharges into waterways by 1985, requiring that anyone who intentionally discharged wastewater into a U.S. waterway obtain a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System [NPDES] permit. Yet today, in the Ohio River watershed alone, there are still roughly 40,000 active NPDES permits.
Using public records, Eye on Ohio mapped out the roughly 6,900 toxic-containing wastewater discharges along the Ohio River, including how much they spew annually.
But public records only tell part of the story.
The Environmental Protection Agency [EPA] works with authorized state regulatory agencies to implement the NPDES permitting program. Though the Clean Water Act governs the process, each state's approach can differ. The EPA sets minimum standards nationally but it is up to each state to establish and manage its own regulations.
The Ohio River Valley Sanitation Commission [ORSANO] is an interstate commission in the watershed that sets pollution control standards for states permitting industrial and municipal wastewater discharges into the Ohio River.
There are two types of permits: general and individual.
General permits are meant for discharges of wastewater that is considered to have minimal adverse effects on the environment. Individual permits, on the other hand, are for sites with more complex discharges that include toxics dangerous to the environment and humans. The permit process analyzes physical, biological and chemical data of the facility's wastewater and determines what the receiving water can accommodate.
Permits assess direct dumping or point-source pollution. The permits do not take into account pollutants such as agricultural runoff, which contributes to nutrient overload, known as "nonpoint" pollution.
Located in New Martinsville, West Virginia, Eagle Natrium, LLC is the second-highest point polluter in the Ohio River watershed. In 2017, it spewed 196,165 toxic-weighted pounds into the Ohio River.
Mercury from the Eagle Natrium facility have made two species of local fish too poisonous to eat in significant quantities, according to the Ohio River Fish Consumption Advisories.
In August 2019, the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition and the Sierra Club filed a lawsuit against the company. The complaint states that Eagle Natrium is the "only remaining chlor-alkali plant in the United States that uses mercury cells."
"Mercury cells" refers to the process that uses liquid mercury to produce chlorine, sodium hydroxide and potassium hydroxide. This is an old technology that came into use in the late 1800s. Other chlor-alkali plants use "membrane cells" for this process, which has been available since the 1960s.
A drain pipe leaks along the Ohio River in Cincinnati, Ohio, near Smale Park. (Credit: Leigh Taylor/Eye on Ohio)
Mercury found in moist environments can transform into methylmercury that bioaccumulates in the food chain. According to West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources, eating fish is the primary local exposure source for mercury.
In a 2016 Healthy Building Network newsletter, Eagle Natrium's parent company at the time Axiall stated that it "has not announced any plans related to its mercury circuit processes" at the Natrium facility. WestLake Chemical acquired Axiall in 2016 and has not responded to several requests for comment.
The EPA's response was the following: "The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection [WVDEP] is the lead agency for overseeing NPDES permitting and enforcement programs in West Virginia, and is actively involved in addressing compliance issues at Eagle Natrium LLC."
On Oct. 15, 2019, just two months after the citizen's suit was filed against Eagle Natrium, WVDEP amended their administrative order once again, giving Eagle Natrium until June 30, 2020, to comply.
The EPA also provided this statement on the facility: "Eagle Natrium (NPDES Permit No. WV0004359) continues to work to achieve compliance pursuant to an existing state formal enforcement action.
The facility has invested an excess of $1 million in studies and improvements and has paid more than $1 million in penalties for exceeding NPDES permit limits.
Further, the facility was granted interim permit limits. The interim limits were not updated in the national database, therefore, the compliance summary is not accurate. EPA and WVDEP are working to resolve these data discrepancies."
Chuck Keller (left), from Fort Thomas Kentucky, and Jeremy Shannon, from Southgate, Kentucky, walk near the Licking River Greenway and Trails next to the Licking River in Covington, Kentucky. In addition to point pollution sources, non-point pollution like grass fertilizer runs off into the river as well. (Credit: Leigh Taylor/Eye on Ohio)
The individual NPDES permit process requires a public notice along with the opportunity for public comment prior to its approval. Permit notices are found on each state's environmental protection department website. But a lengthy process doesn't always ensure better review.
"There are very few members of the public that can monitor and comment on permits," said Jim Hecker, environmental enforcement director for Public Justice, a national nonprofit legal advocacy organization. "You have to be pretty sophisticated to even know what to say in your permit comments. There's probably a handful of people who are doing that in each state, with a few environmental groups."
Having a legal limit also doesn't ensure that facilities follow those standards.
A study from Frontier Group and Environment America Research and Policy Center examined NPDES permit data from 2011 to 2017 and found that an average of 27,849 facilities were noncompliant each year across the United States. Of those noncompliant facilities, the study found only an average of 13,076 faced EPA or state enforcement action on an annual basis.
What determines whether or not action is taken against a noncompliant facility?
According to the EPA: "Enforcement actions are determined on a case-by-case basis. The EPA and its state partners work together to address NPDES permitting and compliance issues."
Guilfoile is skeptical. "I don't think we have a culture of corporate responsibility associated with public health, I just don't, and it's exhausting," he said.
The same study examined data to determine how many facilities discharged more than their permit allowed between Jan. 1, 2016, and Sept. 30, 2017. West Virginia topped the list with 54% (26) of its facilities reporting exceedances greater than 100% of their permit limits at least once. Other states in the Ohio River watershed on the top-10 list of those with facilities that exceed their permit limits by greater than 100% at least once included Indiana at 32% (21 facilities), New York at 31% (37 facilities), and Illinois at 29% (19 facilities).
Chuck Keller and Debra Hausrath, both from Fort Thomas, Kentucky, walk along the Licking River Greenway and Trails in Covington, Kentucky, on Dec. 19, 2019. Nearby manufacturer IPSCO Tubulars discharges wastewater containing lead and manganese into the river. (Credit: Leigh Taylor/Eye on Ohio)
Facilities with reported discharges greater than 500% of their permit limits also showed West Virginia at the top of the list with 31%(15 facilities).
Eagle Natrium reported 56 exceedances from 2011 to 2017, according to the study. On 38 occasions, the company allegedly discharged more than 100% their permit limit. On 17 occasions, the discharge allegedly exceeded 500% percent of the limit. The discharged toxics included mercury, copper, chloroform, iron and chloride.
Eagle Natrium's predecessors, PPG Industries, also had issues with permit compliance and was under a consent order when the company changed ownership in 2014. Eagle Natrium is operating via a permit granted to PPG Industries.
The permit was extended because ORSANCO's pollution control standards required facilities operating prior to 2003 and discharging bioaccumulative chemicals of concern [BCC] to eliminate their "mixing zones" by 2015. Mixing zones are collection areas where facilities dilute their discharges to meet water quality standards before entering waterways.
Also in October 2015, ORSANCO updated its pollution control standards to remove the mixing zone deadline and replaced it to say "as soon as is practicable, as determined by the permitting authority." Therefore, WVDEP extended the facility's deadline while implementing interim discharge limits higher than the permit allows.
"One of the reasons the Ohio is ranked the dirtiest is because these bioaccumulative chemicals of concern are in the sediment and you'll never get rid of them unless you dredged the length Ohio River bottom," Guilfoile said. "Even if we stopped dumping everything today, that's not going to change the BCC contamination in the Ohio River. Continuing to dump will make it worse, but it's already pitiful."
Prior to his work in water quality, Guilfoile was Cincinnati Children's Hospital senior vice president of operations. In his time there, he loved the fact that he was able to impact the general well-being of children in many ways, but in other ways he knew he couldn't.
The split of wins and losses when working to protect the environment weighs on him.
"I'm 70 years old now and I used to be a person with strong optimism and I'm not anymore. I'm just not. I've got a few years left to live and I'm going to fish as much as I possibly can and it's too bad that this may very well be our last century on Earth."
Note: Data from this story was derived from the EPA's Enforcement and Compliance History Online [ECHO] site. The National Library of Medicine's Toxmap application is no longer operating as of Dec. 16, 2019. When Eye on Ohio asked for an update, the National Library of Medicine [NLM] released the following statement:
"The decision to retire the tool was made in 2019 as part of a broader NLM reorganization that integrated most of NLM's toxicology information services into other NLM products and services. The sunset was announced in early summer 2019 to give users sufficient time to transition to other sources. NLM has taken great care to ensure that no data become unavailable as we reorganize our toxicology and other resources. Some data have been archived and made available via FTP. In the case of ToxMap, underlying data remains available through their original sources. The links to those sources are available on the ToxNet redirection site."
Mercury, which damages young brains, is flowing through industrial wastewater into the Ohio River. But the multi-state agency tasked with keeping the waterway clean hasn't tightened controls on this pollution because it doesn't have the authority to do so.
While coal-fired power plants, chemical manufacturers and other facilities along the Ohio River are piping mercury directly into the river and there's a permitting process to regulate that, the more significant source appears to be mercury blown into the atmosphere from smokestacks — both locally and across the globe from mining, energy and other industries. The mercury eventually settles on land and flows into water.
Figuring out how much of the toxic is coming from local industries or wind currents remains a challenge. The efforts so far to get a handle on it have spurred a patchwork of state rules that leave it up to consumers whether it's worth the risk to eat their catch of the day. Fish are the most important source of exposure to humans.
There's a legal pathway for further ratcheting down mercury releases directly to the river, but the regulated industries say they already meet strict permit requirements and that path has hit diminishing returns. The industries say the problem lies in regional and global air emissions, but the legal levers there aren't as easy to pull.
The tension between blaming airborne or wastewater sources is one factor among many that have played into controversial decisions around mercury over the past decade at the Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission [ORSANCO] — an interstate water quality agency created in 1948 when the Ohio River was an open sewer for cities and factories and the Clean Water Act was still decades away.
Mercury takes a complicated path from industrial and natural sources through water and air to humans
Environmental groups have looked to ORSANCO to tighten mercury standards on wastewater discharges. Industries arguing against tighter water standards say that atmospheric sources are a bigger problem, and much of the mercury in their wastewater is in a chemical form unlikely to move through the food chain into fish.
ORSANCO has moved away from regulation, a path the agency said reflects the reality that it doesn't have the same authority as its member states' environmental agencies or the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency [EPA].
"ORSANCO doesn't set rules for the states," said Richard Harrison, the agency's executive director. "The states set rules for the states. The states agree to work through ORSANCO as a collaborative body to work globally for the Ohio River basin."
ORSANCO's strengths, Harrison said, are monitoring and research. In 2016, commission staff launched a broad accounting of atmospheric and wastewater mercury sources across the Ohio River watershed. The report isn't yet published, but a presentation delivered to an ORSANCO committee meeting in October 2019 said 11 percent of the mercury in the Ohio River main stem comes from wastewater discharges throughout the watershed, including tributaries.
The John T. Myers Lock and Dam. ORSANCO lists seven species that shouldn't be eaten more than once a month from the John T. Myers Locks and Dam in southern Indiana to where the river empties into the Mississippi River due to mercury concerns. (Credit: Louisville District, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)
An environmental scientist who has seen preliminary results said the study has flaws, though it's not clear if those concerns will make it into the final version expected next month.
While ORSANCO and state authorities are bogged down in disagreements over the relative threat of atmospheric and wastewater sources and whether states should work through ORSANCO to tighten regulations across the watershed, environmental advocates say the public is worse off for having to sort through the mess.
The ORSANCO fish advisory website lists seven species — sauger, black bass, freshwater drum, white bass, striped bass, hybrid striped bass and flathead catfish — that shouldn't be eaten more than once a month from one 135-mile section of the Ohio River (from the John T. Myers Locks and Dam in southern Indiana to where the river empties into the Mississippi River) due to mercury concerns. Yet the agency's most recent annual report says the "entire river is impaired for fish consumption due to dioxin and PCBs, but fully supports fish consumption for mercury."
"What is that telling the public?" said Jason Flickner, director of the Indiana-based Lower Ohio River Waterkeeper. "Especially when it comes down to something as important as the ability to eat the fish and remain healthy."
For all that's complicated about regulating mercury, one thing is clear: It's a potent neurotoxin that is particularly dangerous to children. Mercury persists in the environment in a few different chemical forms. One of the less common forms, methylmercury, is the most threatening to people. Industries emit some methylmercury directly; the rest is created from other forms of mercury that are digested by microbes or undergo chemical reactions in soils and sediments.
"By now, about 12 different prospective studies have documented that children's brain development is negatively affected by methylmercury," said Phillippe Grandjean, an environmental health scientist and professor at Harvard's School of Public Health. "The more, the worse."
"The results also show that EPA's current intake limit is too high to protect the brains of the next generation," he said. The agency has announced plans to update its "reference dose."
Studies have also linked mercury exposure to heart disease in adults. Children exposed in the womb or through breast milk can suffer impairments to memory, language and other cognitive functions.
People are mostly exposed to mercury through eating contaminated fish. It's one of a group of pollutants that when consumed by animals can build up, or "bioaccumulate," in their tissues.
"The larger and higher up in the food chain the fish are, the more mercury," Grandjean said. "That sounds like sports fish, right?"
Mercury-contaminated fish are common in waterways across the country, and the Ohio River is no exception. Species including angler favorites like hybrid striped bass have been found in the Ohio River with mercury above the level considered safe by the EPA.
A 2010 study found five of 12 hybrid striped bass samples tested higher than the EPA mercury limit. An ORSANCO fish contaminant database shows that 36 of the 307 samples collected since 2009 with a methylmercury record appear higher than the EPA limit.
Clifty Creek Station, a coal plant in Madison, Indiana, released 12 pounds of mercury into the Ohio River in 2017. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Each state along the Ohio River issues fish consumption advisories that warn against eating too much fish from the river due to mercury and other chemicals. ORSANCO supports such work by collecting fish contamination data for member states and helping to keep the warnings consistent.
ORSANCO's work on advisories is an example of the interstate collaboration the agency was designed to support when it was created. Its actions are guided by the votes of a board of 27 commissioners appointed by the eight member states and the federal government.
Tom FitzGerald, director of the Kentucky Resources Council, is one of the few ORSANCO commissioners from the nonprofit environmental advocacy world. He's a federal commissioner appointed by the Obama administration in 2014. His term lasts until he resigns or is replaced, and he jokes that his days might be numbered under the anti-regulation Trump administration.
"I kid everybody that I'm an endangered species because one of these days the administration is going to realize that I'm a holdover and they're going to replace me," FitzGerald said.
FitzGerald lobbied ORSANCO for stronger water quality protections long before he was a commissioner there, including a 2003 ban on "mixing zones" for facilities with mercury and other bioaccumulative chemicals in their wastewater. Some facilities on the Ohio River that couldn't meet mercury standards at the end of their pipes were historically allowed to instead measure pollutants at the end of a downstream mixing zone that diluted their discharges.
"Relying on dilution ... doesn't seem to be an appropriate pollution control strategy," FitzGerald said.
ORSANCO commissioners in 2003 agreed to ban any new mixing zones in the Ohio River for mercury and other toxics. Facilities already using mixing zones would have 10 years to find a way to meet standards without them.
This map shows the locations of 34 fish tissue samples collected from the Ohio River from 2010 to 2016 that met or exceeded 0.3 milligram methylmercury per kilogram fish tissue, the level deemed safe for human health by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. From the same data, 274 samples were below 0.3 mg/kg criteria. Data Source: ORSANCO
But by 2010, it was clear some industries wouldn't meet the deadline. ORSANCO, despite pleas from environmental groups and the public, exempted some polluters from the ban. In 2013, they delayed the deadline to 2015. In 2015, the commissioners dropped the deadline altogether and set a goal to eliminate mixing zones "as soon as is practicable," which would be left up to the state agencies that issue pollution permits.
"A recognition of the complexities of implementing a hard ban for existing permitted facilities really came to light," said Harrison, ORSANCO's executive director. "It was a recognition that the states were the best entity to work in that arena."
According to the most recent data available from EPA's Toxic Release Inventory, Dynegy's Zimmer Station coal plant in Moscow, Ohio, released 100 pounds of mercury compounds into the Ohio River in 2017, the largest discharge that year. The plant is in compliance with its wastewater permit from the Ohio EPA, said Meranda Cohn, director of media relations and corporate affairs with the plant's parent company.
"This permit includes strict mercury discharge limits," she said.
Lafarge's Joppa cement plant in Grand Chain, Illinois, released 32 pounds the same year. Clifty Creek Station, a coal plant in Madison, Indiana, released 12 pounds. It's not clear if any of these facilities were using mixing zones. The data are self-reported by industries.
The ban on new mixing zones on the Ohio River stayed, but leaving the phase-out for existing ones up to the states has played out unevenly in these Ohio watershed states:
An ORSANCO environmental scientist collects an Ohio River water sample for the agency's bimonthly monitoring program, one of the several projects tracking water quality in the river. (Credit: ORSANCO)
According to Rob Reash, environmental scientist and principal at his consultancy company Reash Environmental, a mixing zone ban on the Ohio River wouldn't significantly affect fish mercury levels there anyway.
Reash has studied mercury in water — particularly the Ohio River — for decades. He's a member of the ORSANCO mercury committee. Reash retired last year as an environmental scientist at American Electric Power [AEP], a utility company that runs coal plants in several states along the Ohio River, and set up his own firm this year. As an AEP scientist, he published studies suggesting fish mercury levels aren't higher near coal plants and much of the mercury in their wastewater is in chemical forms that don't build up in animal tissues like methylmercury.
Despite consistently publishing results that argue against regulations for the industries that have funded his work, Reash said he hasn't encountered skepticism of his work.
"One of the primary reasons I've been doing this research for so long is it is a priority for me to have credibility with my peers," Reash said. "So when I say something, I can be trusted."
FitzGerald, who also sits on the mercury committee and is familiar with Reash's work, agrees.
"He knows his stuff," he said. "He works for industry, but I think his work has been subject to some pretty significant scrutiny."
Reash is also familiar with the preliminary results of the ORSANCO study attempting to figure out how much of the mercury in the Ohio River comes from atmospheric sources and industrial wastewater (known as "point sources").
Referencing the October presentation that said all point sources in the basin — not just those along the main stem — account for about 11% of the instream mercury, Reash said, "That tells me that if you want to reduce mercury in water or in fish, you can't cap up industrial discharges. It's not going to work."
Others familiar with the draft report say it's a good start, but the final version will have to include important changes to accurately sort out sources of mercury.
A hybrid striped bass from the Wabash River. A 2010 study found five of 12 hybrid striped bass samples from the Ohio River tested higher than the EPA mercury limit. (Credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service - Midwest Region)
For example, the October presentation shows an estimate of how much mercury was deposited from the atmosphere on the land area of each of the Ohio's tributary watersheds. Those numbers are compared against industrial discharges for the same portion of the river and estimated to be 20 to 50 times larger than the local point sources.
Joel Blum, professor of earth and environmental sciences at the University of Michigan, is familiar with a draft of the report and has seen the data presented in October. He said this comparison between atmospheric and point sources is "apples and oranges."
The study, he said, gives a good estimate of how much mercury is deposited on the land. But not all of that mercury flows into the Ohio River.
"We know that a large amount of the mercury that is deposited to the land surface accumulates in organic rich soils and vegetation and in sediments throughout the system," Blum said.
"What they need to do is figure out how much of that is actually making it to the river and how much is staying put on the land," he said. "In all likelihood, it's a very small percentage."
Reash agreed that some portion of the mercury is sequestered in the land and there is a level of uncertainty about the atmospheric results. But ORSANCO did the best study they could with the funding they had, he said.
"The big question once this thing gets finalized is what are ORSANCO and the states going to do with this," he said. "Is it going to modify policy whatsoever?"
A catfishing tournament on the Ohio River in 2017. People are mostly exposed to mercury through eating contaminated fish. (Credit: Louisville District, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)
Even though the atmospheric sources are the more significant source of mercury to the Ohio River, FitzGerald said policies that address industrial sources are worth looking into.
"Do you ratchet down further those dischargers over which you do have regulatory responsibility and regulatory control? I think it's a legitimate question and one to address to the individual states," he said.
The question would be whether states should apply additional restrictions under authority granted to states through Clean Water Act policies. Under those programs, states monitor lakes and streams, and those that don't meet certain criteria — chemical concentrations, for example — are added to a list of "impaired" waters. For the most impaired waters, states are required to develop a clean-up plan called a Total Maximum Daily Load, or TMDL. Those plans calculate the total amount of a particular pollutant that is allowed to enter a waterbody. States can then apply additional scrutiny to wastewater permits in an effort to get a lake or river under that amount.
But, it's complicated.
Indiana has included its section of the Ohio River on its list of "impaired" waters due to high mercury levels. But the state's Department of Environmental Management is not developing a TMDL.
The Indiana Department of Environmental Management "has not found TMDLs to be a particularly useful tool since one of the main sources is air deposition from emissions far from Indiana," said Barry Sneed, a department spokesman.
The agency's report on impaired waters also says that an Ohio River TMDL would require more than one state because it's a boundary water between states. Across the river from Indiana, Kentucky's state environmental agency also added its stretch of the Ohio River to its list of waters impaired from mercury. But it removed the river from that list when it said new testing methods showed that fish weren't as contaminated with methylmercury as previously thought.
Flickner of the Lower Ohio River Waterkeeper said inconsistencies between states like this are exactly what ORSANCO was originally designed to mitigate.
"They're giving up the idea that they have any enforcement or can address the states on a regulatory basis at all," Flickner said. "That's the message that everybody is getting and there's really nothing we can do to stop it."
Jeff Brooks-Gillies, a freelance writer for Environmental Health News, authored this story. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.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.
PARKERSBURG, W. Va. – Tommy Joyce is no cinephile. The last movie he saw in a theater was the remake of "True Grit" nearly a decade ago. "I'd rather watch squirrels run in the woods" than sit through most of what appears on the big screen, he said.
But there's a film that opened Dec. 5 at the Regal Cinemas at Grand Central Mall that's attracting a lot of attention in his community. "Dark Waters" — a legal thriller starring Mark Ruffalo, with a script inspired by a 2016 New York Times article — tells the epic story of the DuPont corporation's failure to inform residents of the Mid-Ohio Valley of the considerable health risks of a perfluoroalkyl substance [PFAS] called perfluorooctanoic acid, or C8, for its chain of eight carbons.
The chemical was used in DuPont's production of Teflon and other household products at its Washington Works facility just outside Parkersburg, along the Ohio River. C8 is found in nonstick pans, waterproof clothing, stain-resistant carpets, microwave popcorn bags, fast-food wrappers and hundreds of other products. According to a 2007 study, C8 is in the blood of 99.7% of Americans. It's called a "forever chemical" because it never fully degrades.
DuPont had been aware since at least the 1960s that C8 was toxic in animals and since the 1970s that there were high concentrations of it in the blood of its factory workers. DuPont scientists were aware in the early 1990s of links to cancerous tumors from C8 exposure. But company executives failed to inform the Environmental Protection Agency [EPA] or the public.
An aerial view of Parkersburg, West Virginia, taken from Fort Boreman Park on Nov. 20, 2019. (Credit: Lexi Browning/100 Days in Appalachia)
Joyce graduated from Parkersburg High School in 1992, went off and earned three degrees and came home. He now serves as mayor of the city of Parkersburg — population: 30,000.
Joyce said he's heard more about his community's long struggle with corporate environmental malfeasance in the past few weeks than in his previous two and a half years in office. He attributes this to the release of "Dark Waters."
Even David-and-Goliath tales often have complicated backstories, and Joyce knows well that such is the case with Parkersburg and DuPont. "DuPont has been in the Ohio Valley for 70-plus years, and has been a tremendous employer," he said. "Without question, DuPont was the place to work in the Mid-Ohio Valley for a lot of years." Many of his classmates grew up in DuPont families.
Though Chemours, a spinoff company of DuPont, now operates the Washington Works plant, DuPont maintains a presence in the community. A DuPont spokesperson provided an overview of its financial and volunteer support initiatives and wrote that the company supports programs and organizations focused on revitalizing neighborhoods and enhancing quality of life; STEM-related initiatives in local schools; and "initiatives that help protect the environment through clean-up or restoration efforts and allow for DuPont Washington Works to show we are a leader in minimizing our environmental footprint within the community."
Parkersburg, said Doug Higgs, is the kind of town where everybody knows everybody. Higgs graduated from Parkersburg High a year after Joyce, and Joyce's mother, Barbara, taught him Sunday school.
"Everybody knows everybody's business," Higgs said, but nobody talked about C8. It was a matter of "not wanting to bite the hand that fed you."
Well-paying jobs, great benefits, Little League sponsorships, investments in the arts — but at a cost. The hand that fed did clench.
Higgs, now an emergency room physician living in Richmond, Virginia, recalls returning from road trips with his family asleep in the back seat, awakened as they approached home by the familiar waft of chemicals.
Two of the Higgs' most immediate neighbors died in their early 50s of renal cell cancer. Higgs' father has ulcerative colitis, and his brother received treatment for polycystic kidney disease in high school.
"We all have stories of friends and family, neighbors, dying too young or being diagnosed with various medical problems," Higgs said.
He knows, of course, the distinction between correlation and causation. But the high incidence of a range of diseases has staggered this community. It's unfair, Higgs said, that a community should have to perpetually ask what exactly it has been exposed to, and where and when the consequences will end.
DuPont's own documentation specified that C8 was not to be flushed into surface waters, but the company did so for decades. The chemical seeped into the water supplies of the communities of Lubeck and Little Hocking, immediately west of Parkersburg, and the city of Belpre, Ohio, just across the river; and three other water systems.
In 2004, DuPont paid $70 million in a class-action lawsuit and agreed to install filtration plants in the affected water districts. In 2005, it reached a $16.5 million settlement with the EPA for violations of the Toxic Substances Control Act.
A collective decision was made to use the money won in the class-action suit to conduct an epidemiological study in which nearly 70,000 of the 80,000 plaintiffs stopped into one of six clinics set up throughout the community, provided their medical histories and offered their blood. They were each paid $400.
A science panel, comprised of public health scientists appointed by DuPont and lawyers representing the community, was convened to examine the immense database. In 2012, after seven years of study, the panel released a report documenting a probable link between C8 and six conditions: testicular cancer, kidney cancer, thyroid disease, ulcerative colitis, pregnancy-induced hypertension and high cholesterol.
A vehicle slows down at the corner of Fourth and Market streets in Parkersburg, West Virginia, on Nov. 20, 2019. (Credit: Lexi Browning/100 Days in Appalachia)
In 2015, DuPont spun off its chemical division into a new company called Chemours, which now occupies the Washington Works facility on the Ohio. In 2017, DuPont and Chemours agreed to pay $671 million to settle some 3,500 pending lawsuits.
"You grew up with the fear of DuPont leaving town," said Ben Hawkins. Hawkins was student body president of the Parkersburg High class of 1993. He remembers DuPont's participation in his school's Partners in Education program and riding in parades on DuPont-sponsored floats.
Among Hawkins' classmates who have been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer was Mike Cox, a local dentist. Cox, Hawkins and Higgs were among a pack of guys who ran together in high school and stayed close after. Cox was a big Ozzy Osbourne fan, and after a grueling regimen of chemo, Hawkins helped arrange backstage passes to a concert, where Osbourne pulled Cox near and shared his own family's experience with cancer. Post-diagnosis, Cox had begun performing stand-up comedy routines that incorporated flute solos. He died Jan. 28, 2017, at the age of 41, a father of three.
Hawkins, who now lives in the Washington, D.C., area, views his Partners in Education experiences somewhat differently today: "It wasn't a partnership; it was a page from a public relations playbook. It was the old 'hey-look-over-here!' move to keep the Teflon dollars flowing into their bank account."
His classmate Beth Radmanesh has similar cynical recollections of DuPont's role in her childhood. Radmanesh grew up less than a mile from the Washington Works plant. Today, she has high cholesterol. Her dad suffers from discoid lupus, causing sores the size of 50-cent pieces on his forehead. Her brother has lupus and had colon cancer, and her sister-in-law has also been diagnosed with lupus.
But Radmanesh said her mom is a proponent of bringing another controversial industry to the valley: fracking for natural gas. "I said to her, 'We've already had our water contaminated once. Do you want your water [to be] flammable? Because that's what will happen.'" Her mom's response was, "'Oh, Beth.' That's it. 'Oh, Beth.'"
Joe Kiger and his wife Darlene Kiger are photographed at their residence in Washington, West Virginia, on Dec. 4, 2019. The Kigers have spent the last two decades working to uncover the impacts and effects of C8 exposure in the region. (Credit: Lexi Browning/100 Days in Appalachia)
Joe and Darlene Kiger live just a few miles from where Radmanesh grew up. Joe, a physical education teacher, is now quite well known in the community for having raised awareness of the dangers of C8 — called "the devil's piss" by some — in local water supplies. He and his wife, Darlene, joined the class-action suit that was settled in 2004.
Darlene said that when she and Joe are out around town, "there are a lot of whispers behind your back. They don't know what to say." The experience has taken a toll — "these people all looking at you as bringing this on them," Joe said — but they've never considered leaving. "Why would you leave the fight?" he said. "What would it look like if we packed up?"
There's a lot, Joe said, that DuPont hasn't yet been held accountable for. Earlier this year, Chemours was cited by the EPA for the unregulated release of new chemical compounds from its West Virginia and North Carolina facilities. "I'm not done yet," Joe said.
Harry Deitzler served as a lead attorney, among others, in representing the Kigers and tens of thousands of others in the class-action suit. Deitzler was the architect of the decision to use the $70 million to conduct the study.
"Parkersburg adopted me in 1975," Deitzler said of his arrival in town. He'd come for a summer internship in the prosecuting attorney's office. The position didn't pay enough to cover his room and board, so he took a job in a bar called Friar Tuck's.
"By the end of the summer, the community was my family," Deitzler said. "I asked the prosecutor if he'd hire me as an assistant the next year, and he said, 'Sure; you'll get $6,000 a year.' And I said, 'That'll be great.'"
"Most people thought I was a recovering alcoholic because I never drank a beer, because I couldn't afford to buy one." Three years later, at 27, he was appointed as prosecuting attorney. "Such a wonderful, accepting community."
But, some three decades later, there was a price to pay for taking on DuPont.
"There was a misperception that we were trying to put DuPont out of business, and, of course, that was created intentionally by the people in Wilmington," Deitzler said, referring to DuPont's Delaware headquarters. "When you have a community of that size, and you've got several thousand people employed there, and multiply that by the families and their relatives — it's very upsetting." Some folks were unsure of what to make of Deitzler.
Longtime resident Nancy Roettger characterizes the community's reaction to the revelation of what DuPont had done as a "weird mix."
"There were women that immediately went out and changed their frying pans," Roettger said. But a lot of those same people decided "that Harry Deitzler is a horrible person" for his role in exposing DuPont.
"It's like, they don't want that frying pan anymore," she said, "but they don't want anything negative, and they're very resentful of the people that stirred up the trouble."
Candace Jones, a native of Vienna, West Virginia, is photographed downtown on Nov. 20, 2019. (Credit: Lexi Browning/100 Days in Appalachia)
Candace Jones, a neighbor and longtime friend of Roettger's, said she hates the perception that the community has been divided between the DuPonters and everyone else.
"We're a community and we all need each other," Jones said. "I think it's terrible, absolutely horrendous what happened because of decisions made for monetary gain. But I don't believe we can blame the everyday worker." Her father-in-law worked in the Teflon division. "He just went to work every day; he provided for [his family]."
Jones' friend Janet Ray's husband passed away 16 years ago from pancreatic cancer. He worked for BorgWarner, a manufacturing company on the river. There are about a dozen houses along Ray's street in Vienna, a Parkersburg suburb, "and I think just about every house during the time I've lived on the street has been affected by cancer."
Ray said she sometimes feels guilty, thinking that perhaps the livelihood her family has enjoyed as a result of her husband's employment might have caused health problems for others. "I certainly hope it didn't."
Tracy Danzey was raised in the quiet of Vienna, there with the Rays, the Joneses, the Higgs family. She now lives on the other side of the state, in West Virginia's Eastern Panhandle. Danzey was a competitive swimmer growing up. When not competing, "we were on the river … we were playing in the creeks. I was always in the water."
"It's hard to look back at that time now and see it as idyllic," Danzey said.
At age 20, her thyroid began malfunctioning. Five years later, the socket of her hip shattered while running with her husband. She was diagnosed with an atypical form of bone cancer in her right hip. Her hip and leg had to be amputated; she underwent 18 months of high-dose chemotherapy.
Six leading pathologists from across the country were unable to identify the specific type of cancer. "They said it's very pathologically unusual." Research has indicated to Danzey, who's a nurse, that pathologically unusual cancers are not uncommonly associated with industrial poisonings.
Danzey's stepfather is retired from DuPont and her stepbrother works on the Teflon line. "Yes, it is complicated," her mother, Carolyn Tracewell, said. When her kids were growing up, when someone was hired at DuPont, "there was a celebration" — the good pay, the benefits, "and they did treat their employees well."
But "my heart hurts," Tracewell said, to think that her daughter's illnesses might be a consequence of all that.
Danzey said her mom "mostly just feels pain for me," worries about her stepson and is anxious about the future. Her stepfather wonders if one day his pension check will no longer arrive as a result of all the financial fallout.
None of them argue with Tracy about the source of her illnesses. "They know what happened." They allow her "to sit in this truth regardless of how it affects them." That means a lot.
Danzey is among those who believe that in regard to perceptions of DuPont in the Parkersburg community, there's a generational divide: Those in their 40s and younger tend to hold a less charitable view than baby boomers and their parents.
There likewise appears to be a generational divide in willingness to drink the water, despite the filtration installed as a result of the settlement.
On the September Saturday afternoon of the annual Parkersburg Paddlefest, kayaker Travis Hewitt, 31, stood ashore of the point where the Ohio meets the Little Kanawha and said that few people he knows truly believe the water's safe. Sure, he paddles in it, but "I try not to get it on me" and never swims in it. He has a filter installed in his kitchen.
Weathered signage on the Point Park floodwall greets passersby in downtown Parkersburg, West Virginia, on Nov. 20, 2019. (Credit: Lexi Browning/100 Days in Appalachia)
Tommy Joyce, the mayor of Parkersburg, is bullish on West Virginia: "We've got enough coal to light the world, gas to heat the world and brains to run the world."
Fellow Parkersburg High grad Brian Flinn, an engineer, worked for DuPont for eight and a half years; he worked with the raw materials of Teflon. He's seen both sides. He's heard, "If DuPont leaves, we're done. This area will be like most other towns in West Virginia; it'll collapse." He's also aware of the inherent dangers in living within the shadow of the chemical industry. So the sentiment goes, he said, "You take the good with the bad, right?"
But Danzey is unwilling. "I love West Virginia," she said. "I really do. I love this state. I don't want to be anywhere else." But she wants better for West Virginians. Industries come into their communities, do well for a while, "screw up the environment and then leave."
"It's time for something new in West Virginia," she said. "It's time for us to expect more."
Pondering that future keeps Ben Hawkins up at night. "What's next? What's next for the community, and where does this end? Or does it? What sort of positivity can come to that community? They need it and they deserve it."
Hawkins asks this: Think about how loyal the people of the Parkersburg community have been to DuPont. What if they had the opportunity to extend that same loyalty to a company that's equally invested in the economic, physical and emotional health of the community?
"That's home and always will be home," Hawkins said of Parkersburg. "We came from that community and that community did a lot to shape us. We all want the best for that community … whatever form that can take."
Taylor Sisk, a Nashville-based healthcare reporter, authored this story for 100 Days in Appalachia. He can be reached at email@example.com.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.
Banner photo: Tracy Danzey grew up in Parkersburg, West Virginia, but now lives on the opposite side of the state in its Eastern Panhandle. Danzey was diagnosed with a rare form of bone cancer that led to the amputation of her leg. (Credit: Seth Freeman Photography)
"Will one of these fit?" Wendell R. Haag asks, holding out a couple pairs of well-worn creeking shoes he's pulled from the back of his pickup, both decidedly larger than a ladies size 8.
Haag is taking me to see an aquatic wonder, and I've worn the wrong shoes. In a rush out the door of my Cincinnati apartment on this chilly October morning, I chose a pair of tall waterproof rubber boots, but Haag is sure they'll fill with water in the sometimes knee-deep stretch of the Licking River we're about to visit.
Haag grew up near here, in Kentucky. He tells me his fascination with the bottom feeder he's about to show me began as a child, collecting opalescent nacre shells in shades of pink, purple and peach near his home.
The curious boy became a biologist for the U.S. Forest Service and is now a leading expert in the field of freshwater mussels, with a Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers from President George W. Bush to show for it.
The Ohio River watershed includes the 981-mile main stem, from Pittsburgh to Cairo, Illinois, and also dozens of tributaries. Up and down each of these waterways, the mussel fauna changes; more of one species here, more of another there, different assortments determined by their immediate environments.
About 130 mussels species have been recorded in the Ohio River system — the most of any other river system on Earth except the Mississippi, because it includes the Ohio.
U.S. Forest Service Fisheries Research Biologist Wendell R. Haag holds a pimpleback mussel and a purple wartyback mussel to show the differences in the species. (Credit: Carrie Blackmore Smith/PublicSource)
Haag has taken me to a specific spot on the Licking River to see an environment that supports more types of mussels than just about anywhere. Roughly 40 species have been recorded here, though several are no longer present. For scope, 16 species have been found in all of Europe.
"Very few people know any of this," says Haag, standing in shorts, a raincoat and a Mississippi National Forest Stream Team ball cap. He adds that even fewer people understand the vital role mussels play in the environment.
Mussels are good monitors of stream quality; they purify water, provide a structural habitat and food for other organisms and ease something known as nutrient overload, often caused by farm fertilizer run-off and water treatment practices. Mussels can naturally recycle and store some of these nutrients.
A lot of people don't realize that humans are responsible for the extinction of at least 11 mussel species that once lived in the watershed and that about 70% are considered "imperiled," meaning their rapid and continuous declines put them at risk of becoming extinct.
Haag is chasing after some answers behind the diminishing population.
"When I go out and look for mussels where they should be, they are disappearing," Haag says, "time and time again."
Haag has a hypothesis as to why and a plan to test it. "Before I retire, I want to prove what is doing this."
U.S. Forest Service Fisheries Research Biologist Wendell R. Haag demonstrates how he looks for freshwater mussels with a bucket that he altered to have a clear bottom, perfect for looking at the riverbed. (Credit: Carrie Blackmore Smith/PublicSource)
Let's just say Jeremy Tiemann is comfortable in a wetsuit. The aquatic ecologist has spent 22 years exploring freshwater habitats, many in the Ohio River watershed. At his job at the Illinois Natural History Survey, housed at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, his work informs how environmental regulations are set in the Prairie State for mussels and other freshwater fauna.
For all he's seen, Tiemann is fairly confident that no other aquatic organisms have taken a bigger hit from American progress than the freshwater mollusks, mussels and snails.
"We completely changed the way the river behaves," Tiemann says by phone from his office, and that's not a good thing for these sensitive animals.
Tiemann did his master's thesis on the impact of low head dams on stream ecosystems. While many species suffered setbacks and death from their construction, it specifically devastated many mussel species. It led to extinctions and substantially reduced population densities.
Why? First, the Ohio River was not naturally as deep as it is today. During a dry spell, people could walk across a lot of it. Locks and dams began to be constructed on the Ohio River around 1885 to raise the water level and allow for easier navigation, with the final dam in that system completed in 1929. In the 1950s, the dam system was modernized by the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers to improve flood protection and raise the water level for barges to transport materials like coal and salt.
Mussels are being raised at the Thomas More University Biology Field Station on the Ohio River near Cincinnati. (Credit: Carrie Blackmore Smith/PublicSource)
Mussels typically like free-flowing water, Tiemann explains. Dams pool the water up behind them and create more pond- or lake-like qualities. Silt and debris built up, suffocating mussels. It also restricts fish migrations, which affects mussels because some use fish to complete their life cycles.
People also built dams on smaller tributaries, channelized streams and began discharging mine and industrial waste into the waters.
So, while the Ohio River watershed has some of the greatest diversity of freshwater mussels anywhere on the planet, they're in a precarious position, Tiemann says.
Pollution spills happen with some frequency and can kill them. They were harvested in some areas a few decades ago, when mussel shells were commonly used to make buttons. Mussels have also had to fight for their place against invasive species like the Zebra mussel, a fingernail-sized mollusk native to freshwaters in Eurasia. It is believed they arrived in North America in the 1980s on large ships from Europe, and they crowded out some native mussels early on.
"We are now starting to realize the true effects of the loss of mussels, and some of us want to improve their numbers and mitigate the problems that they face," Tiemann says.
This includes reintroduction and rescue missions. Tiemann continues to monitor a 13-year project that involved moving populations of two endangered species of mussels away from a spot in the Allegheny River in Pennsylvania. The Hunter Station Bridge replacement was expected to kill the creatures. Tiemann and his team moved them to some streams in Illinois, while colleagues in the field moved them to six other states in the watershed.
Tiemann says many of the mussels are still living. But his team has yet to see evidence of reproduction, which is ultimately what they want to see. Juvenile mussels are extremely difficult to find so it could be another decade or more before they know if the mussels are reproducing.
Every day, he says, researchers learn more and more about these creatures.
"We have more people studying mussels and coming together than ever before," Tiemann says, adding that the Freshwater Mollusk Conservation Society started with a handful of people in 1989. Now they are 500 strong, worldwide, with European and South American contingents. Founders now have students in leadership positions.
Buttons used to be made out of freshwater mussel shells harvested from the Ohio River. These are on display at the Thomas More University Biology Field Station on the Ohio River near Cincinnati. (Credit: Carrie Blackmore Smith/PublicSource)
Back on the Licking River, Haag has his head in a blue Lowe's bucket, which he has modified with plexiglass to create a clear bottom.
Nah, you don't want to eat these mussels, Haag says, pushing the bucket down and sweeping the river floor to find a live one.
Native Americans sometimes ate them but more often they would ground up the shells to temper pottery, Haag says. He's eaten them and says, "They taste awful." He's used to first question being whether they're edible, but he says there's plenty of other reasons to want to keep mussels around.
Haag has found one in the water. The tip of its two shells is all that's visible. It's probably a big one, Haag tells me, carefully wiggling it out of the dirt and lifting the creature out of the water.
The common name for this one is a pink heelsplitter, he says, because they have an elongated wing that protrudes from the stream bottom and could split your foot. The nacre on the inside of their shells is a pinkish purple. The mussel ejects a thin stream of water and retracts a large slimy foot, which it uses to maneuver itself short distances in the riverbed to stay submerged in the stream.
Like with many trees, each ring on the shell of many native mussels represents one year of growth. Most live 20 to 50 years but some live past 100, Haag says.
It's hard to imagine mussels suddenly disappearing from a place like this, but Haag has grown accustomed to seeing it happen. He'll visit a place last documented to have a healthy population of mussels and instead find only dead shells mixed with old mussels past the reproductive stage. It's only a matter of time before it becomes a shell graveyard.
In his years of research and considering other peer-reviewed work, Haag says he believes only two things could be the cause of the decline: either a disease that has not yet been identified or the Corbicula (Asian clam), an invasive species that has been thought to be harmless for decades.
He hopes an answer will help save these creatures whose benefits are just now being understood and, in some cases, harnessed by humans.
There is now a discussion about putting a monetary figure on mussels.
A paper on the topic was released in March 2018 in Hydrobiologia, an international journal of aquatic sciences. The authors called for more research on the economic, social and ecological value of mussels as well as "tools that will allow us to value mussel ecosystem services in a way that is understandable to both the public and to policy makers."
Haag says it can't hurt to determine a mussel's worth.
Suddenly, he lets out a yip of excitement. He can't believe our luck.
Haag waves me over. We peer through the bottom of the bucket together. It's a plain pocketbook mussel doing something researchers only confirmed the function of in the 1990s.
The mussel pushes two flaps of her mantle out of her shell in a way that looks deceivingly like two minnows. She is trying to lure a fish by mimicking its prey. When a fish approaches and opens wide, the mussel will spray her larvae into the fish's face, hoping to hit the gills. There, the baby mussels will attach themselves as parasites and feed off the blood of the fish. The general consensus, Haag says, is they are a relatively benign parasite. Damage to the fish is relatively rare.
It gets wilder. After they attach, they metamorphosize like a caterpillar into a butterfly. They change form — from a glochidia (parasitic microscopic larvae) to a bivalve with a shell.
At this stage, they fall off of the fish, land on the bottom of the stream floor and basically stay put. Studies show that pocketbooks only use bass as a host. "So, it's integral that those fish are here, too," Haag says.
U.S. Forest Service Fisheries Research Biologist Wendell R. Haag points out a mussel living in the stream. (Credit: Carrie Blackmore Smith/PublicSource)
Biologist Janet Clayton is laying some knowledge on the next generation of mussel experts at the annual meeting of the Ohio River Valley Mollusk Group on a November morning.
Clayton has worked with mussels in West Virginia for three decades and has developed mussel surveying methods widely adopted in the field. She's about to retire.
Today, gathered at the Thomas More University Biology Field Station on the Ohio River in California, Kentucky, she's passing on specific advice. Her tips include the best brand of glue to adhere tags to a mussel's shell and the way to sweep an area for mussels to count them properly.
"Now, it is your turn to fight for these guys," Clayton tells the group, her voice catching. "Stay true to the resource." The room, made up of roughly 40 biologists, ecologists, environmental consultants and scholars from six states, gives her a warm round of applause.
The morning talks wrap up and a discussion begins over the difficulty in getting the public to care about these unseen creatures. "How do we reach them?" one woman asks.
Professor Christopher Lorentz, director of Thomas More's environmental science program, runs the facility, lab and conference space, which was originally built as a lock house in the Ohio's first system of locks and dams. Lorentz, university staff and students study the river and its inhabitants there. Water is circulated from the river to raise and observe its fish, mussels and more.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife, state natural resource departments and nonprofits are working together to review impact of dams and cases where they could be removed. Organizations such as the Ohio River Foundation and The Nature Conservancy have been involved in dam removal and education about mussels. When a permit expires, the state or federal government generally reviews its impact on the environment to decide if it should be replaced or removed, Tiemann says.
It's exciting, Lorentz says, to see the synergy between states and experts in the watershed. Scientists are learning more about mussels, "yet, there are some species that aren't doing well in pristine areas." And if we can't figure that out, Lorentz says we can move them around, we can try to preserve them — but what will that do if the mysterious threat is still out there?
Haag says he thinks scientists need to look at the larger patterns and characteristics of the population decline and then focus in more closely on what could cause them. He continues to build on experiments he began in 2015 but fears one day he'll arrive at this place — one of his favorite stretches of river — and find only dead mussels. But not today. Today we'll see plenty of mussels, including the fanshell currently listed as endangered.
"Can you imagine?" Haag says. "It's like walking into a forest that you know and there are no trees." He walks on ahead with his bucket and talks of changing the outcome.
Carrie Blackmore Smith, a freelance journalist based in Cincinnati, Ohio, authored this story for PublicSource. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This story was fact-checked by Sierra Smith.
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.
In Louisville, Kentucky, the Ohio River has something of an image problem.
It seems like everything imaginable has ended up in the river at one time or another. There are the usual suspects like plastic bottles, Styrofoam coolers and tires. There are the byproducts of cities and industries: sewage, landfill juice and industrial waste. And then there are the things that seem almost uniquely Kentucky like coal ash and bourbon.
The Ohio River has been called "the most polluted river in America," but that's an incomplete portrait of a nearly thousand-mile-long river teeming with biodiversity, history and culture.
At times, the industrial impacts have overshadowed the natural splendor that draws some to the river. But a few enthusiasts have taken it upon themselves to rehab the Ohio's image, from dumping ground and coal barge causeway, to natural resource and recreation trail.
Along Louisville's Waterfront Park, David Karem sees the river as the lifeblood of the community. On the river itself, David Wicks kayaks through an ecological corridor, devising a recreation trail where others see barge commerce. And standing beside a road crumbling into the Ohio's muddy riverbanks, Scott Martin envisions a park that inspires people with the power of the river.
"We tend to take the Ohio for granted. It is one of the globe's most significant and largest rivers," Martin said. "It's in the category of the Rhine, the Rhone, the Danube, the Zambezi. This is a massive, massive river system."
Through their projects, they hope to attract others to the river's edge and, in doing so, motivate them to envision a better future for the Ohio River.
River Heritage Conservancy Executive Director Scott Martin looks upon the Falls of The Ohio on the Ohio River. (Credit: Ryan Van Velzer/WFPL)
More than 25 million people live in the Ohio River Basin and some five million of those get their drinking water from the river. But if you wanted to see the river for yourself in downtown Louisville in 1985, you'd likely have to commit some light trespassing.
David Karem is a self-proclaimed river rat. He's also a former state senator and the first president of the Waterfront Development Corporation. When development began on Louisville's downtown waterfront in 1986, Karem described it as a tangle of chain-link fences, junk yards, abandoned warehouses and asphalt terminals.
"Really an impenetrable wasteland as far as getting people back to the river as amenity," Karem said.
Riding a wave of riverfront revitalization occurring across the country, the Waterfront Development Corporation transformed 86 acres into a riverfront park that now boasts 2.2 million visitors annually. Waterfront Park features a walking bridge, paths, grassy fields, playgrounds and a wharf.
The park and its lawns serve dual roles. When the river is low, the park hosts more than 150 events a year including music festivals, air shows and riverboat races. When it's high, the grassy lawns serve as floodplain, absorbing water and dissipating the river's energy. In that way, Waterfront Park was ahead of its time as cities begin to reconsider the ecological and economic impacts of developing riverfronts prone to flooding.
"The flood issues are enormous and so you have to build the park to deal with that," Karem said. "The park was designed extremely carefully to deal with the flooding issues."
But maintenance on the park isn't cheap, and the park has lost a sizeable chunk of its funding over the last five years. Waterfront Development Corporation formed as a partnership, but the state eliminated its funding for the park in 2014, cutting the budget by about $420,000. Earlier this year, the city reduced its funding by 30%, cutting another $300,000 from the $2.4 million operating budget.
"We have to react very quickly to replace those funds that we've lost and that's a significant amount of funding," said Deborah Bilitski, current president of the Waterfront Development Corporation.
Still, Waterfront is working on a 22-acre expansion of the park between 10th and 15th streets along the river. Karem said he believes when people see the river, it deepens their appreciation for the resource.
"The natural mental occurrence is we've got to protect it, we've got to love it, we have to keep it clean, we have to embrace it," he said.
A river road in Indiana sloughing into the Ohio River.(Credit: Ryan Van Velzer/WFPL)
If Waterfront Park is Louisville's front yard, then the nonprofit River Heritage Conservancy wants to be the forest just over its back fence. Right now, it's 600 acres of shoreline, scrap yards, landfills, fill pits, quarries and river camps sitting idly across the river from Louisville in Indiana.
"So even within these junk yards we have over 150 different species of birds that will move through here over the years," said Scott Martin, the conservancy executive director. "We have otter. We have mink. We have flying squirrels."
On a jagged river road near the Falls of the Ohio, Martin describes his vision for the wildest section of land in Kentuckiana's urban core. He envisions a landscape park complete with lawns, hiking trails, forests, wetlands and elevated pathways designed to experience river flooding from a safe distance.
"So we want to be the park where people come experience the power of nature and really feel a little bit of awe and feel our smallness in the face of it," Martin said.
The conservancy has already purchased about half the land needed for the park. To date, funding support has come from the Paul Ogle Foundation, the Blue Sky Foundation, the Town of Clarksville and other local and national organizations.
Martin declined to comment on the amount of funding raised thus far, citing ongoing land acquisition deals. The conservancy is currently working on a master plan to present to the public in spring 2020, Martin said.
Educator and environmentalist David Wicks paddling on the Ohio River near Prospect, Kentucky. Credit: Ryan Van Velzer/WFPL)
David Wicks would like to see Ohio River recreation go a step beyond the water's edge. To that end, he is working with the National Park Service on developing a 274-mile water trail along the river from Portsmouth, Ohio, to West Point, Kentucky.
The Ohio River Recreational Trail would serve as a recreational route along the river with regular public access points for canoes, kayaks, sail and motorboats.
An Ohio River sunset near Prospect, Kentucky. (Credit: Ryan Van Velzer/WFPL)
"And one of the bottom-line ideas is to connect Louisville with all the river towns up and down the river," he said.
On a recent kayak tour along a 14-mile stretch upriver from Louisville, Wicks paddled past forested hills, flocks of migrating birds, barges and small river towns. Halfway through the trip, he paused to walk through the abandoned Rose Island amusement park in Charlestown State Park.
Strolling under a series of archways set in the middle of a forest, he stopped to brush aside the leaves and read something inscribed in the concrete: Walkway of Roses.
"This area we're walking through right now used to be a city," Wicks said. "Now it's a floodplain."
Wicks plans to develop resources in each of the 34 towns along the trail, including additional boat ramps and overnight camping sites every 20 miles or so.
In November, the National Park Service selected the project to receive planning assistance that will include expert consultation and spur the development of hiking, biking and water trails along the river, though it won't include any funding.
The East End Bridge in north Louisville during an Ohio River sunset. (Credit: Ryan Van Velzer/WFPL)
Wicks has a dream that one day he might dip a teacup in the Ohio River and drink cool, clean freshwater while paddling downriver. "And so I think the recreational trail is one step toward that. It develops the advocacy group to help our local politicians do what's right."
Further downriver in Louisville, Karem sits at a picnic bench outside Waterfront Development Corporation's headquarters, which used to house a sand and gravel company. He agrees that providing access to the Ohio River is the most important factor in getting people invested in the resource.
"People have an innate desire to get to the river's edge. It is almost spiritual how much they want to be by it," Karem said.
Standing at the Falls of the Ohio, Martin explained his role in the changing nature of the river.
"In our lifespan, the Ohio is transitioning," he said. "What was previously seen as almost entirely industrial-commercial river is a river that people see for recreational and conservation values."
Ryan Van Velzer, environment reporter at WFPL News, authored this story. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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.
When 78-year-old Jim Casto looks at the towering floodwalls that line downtown Huntington, West Virginia, he sees a dark history of generations past.
The longtime journalist and local historian is short in stature, yet tall in neighborhood tales. On Casto's hand shines a solid gold ring, signifying his more than 40 years of reporting at the local paper. "It was a lot cheaper to give me a ring than to give me a pay raise," he said with a chuckle.
He walks up to the entrance of Harris Riverfront Park, one of 21 gate openings in the more than 3.5 miles of floodwalls covered in decades of charcoal-colored grime and dirt.
The river has shaped the city, providing the transportation for coal, steel and chemical products. But Casto also knows the river has the power to destroy, as it did before the omnipresent walls were there.
Casto published a photobook on the most destructive flood the Ohio River Valley has seen.
"January of 1937 was exceptionally warm. And that meant that the snow on the hillsides melted much earlier than usual and faster than usual. Then, there were 19 consecutive days of rain," Casto said.
He points to the number 69 near the top of a decorative gauge marking river heights.
"That is the '37 flood," he said. The river rose to nearly 20 feet above flood stage — more than 69 feet high.
Thousands of Huntington residents were forced from their homes. The county courthouse became a virtual port for rescue boats.
"As Time magazine in '37 described it: 'Hell and High Water,'" Casto said.
Ohio River communities from Pittsburgh to Cairo, Illinois, were inundated. About a million people were left homeless; 385 people were killed; and the flood, adjusted for current inflation, caused an estimated $9.12 billion in damages.
In the wake of the disaster, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers took on a mammoth effort to construct hundreds of miles of levees, floodwalls and numerous pump stations to keep back rising water. Those defenses are now, on average, nearly 60 years old. Huntington's system was built in 1943, one of the oldest in the basin.
That advanced age worries local officials from several Ohio Valley towns who look after these defenses, plagued by rust, antiquated designs, archaic pump engines and, in some places, sinkholes. They say funding is scarce to upgrade World War II-era safeguards that protect $120.7 billion in property and about 720,000 people throughout the Ohio River basin.
Huntington is one of a dozen levee systems in the basin that the Corps of Engineers classifies as a "high risk" due to the combination of aging infrastructure and the people and property that would be harmed if the system were to fail. The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates aging levee systems like these across the country will need $80 billion in upgrades within the next decade.
The challenge is made greater by the growing menace of climate change. A warmer, wetter climate could intensify the severity and frequency of flooding and send up to 50% more water flowing through Ohio Valley waterways within this century.
Mike Pemberton pictured outside the entrance of Pump Station Number Six in Ironton, Ohio. (Credit: Liam Niemeyer, Ohio Valley ReSource)
With the twist of a cold handle, a heavy, metal door creaks open, the sound echoing throughout the cavernous Pump Station Number Six on the west side of Ironton, Ohio, along the Ohio River.
"Like going into the Frankenstein laboratory, wasn't it?" said Mike Pemberton, who's managed flood defense for decades in the city of more than 10,000 people, a half-hour downstream from Huntington. Four gigantic red pumps protrude 10 feet from the ground below a raised platform, where large, green electrical switchboards from the 1940s take up most of the space.
Pemberton motions to a sensor with a weighted pulley that uses mercury to tell how much water is being pumped during high water; modern equipment, on the other hand, would be computerized. He said it's fairly reliable, but sometimes the mercury container collects a film of carbon material that he shakes off.
"Slap the side of it, and sometimes that'll clean the carbon off the mercury," Pemberton said.
Ironton's flood defense system of pump stations, levees and floodwalls were also built in the 1940s, much like in Huntington. The sensor is something he can see and more easily maintain. Yet some things remain outside his experienced sight, including the more than half-century-old pipes that run through the station and the sluice gates that seal water from flooding the station itself.
"We don't know the condition of the inside of that pipe. We don't know if that gate could have a stress crack in it," Pemberton said. "That's some of the things I kind of worry about."
Pemberton's maintenance worries extend far beyond to nine other archaic pump stations, almost 4 miles of earthen levee and over another mile of floodwall. He said a local tax levy that generates about $260,000 a year for his department mostly funds salaries for three employees and daily maintenance on the flood protection system. That includes tasks such as mowing the grass on top of levees and greasing pump motors.
Mike Pemberton shows a dated sensor that uses mercury in Pump Station Number Six in Ironton, Ohio. (Credit: Liam Niemeyer, Ohio Valley ReSource)
Ironton voted in 2014 to double the tax levy. Pemberton campaigned for the measure by hanging signs marking the 1937 flood level throughout the city's historic downtown, reaching the second floor of many buildings.
Ironton City Council also passed an ordinance in 2018 that created a monthly $5 flood protection fee tacked onto utility bills. That revenue goes into a Flood Improvement Fund that had a little more than $200,000 as of late November, according to the city's finance director. Ironton's per capita income is about $20,000 and the city's poverty rate hovers at 20%, but the city didn't have many other options.
"To nobody's knowledge was there anywhere, any kind of money available to go after that would meet the kind of needs, and there was an immediate need," said Jim Tordiff, the former Ironton councilman who drafted the ordinance. "It had gone on too long and couldn't be ignored."
But Pemberton said even with the extra local funding, the glaring, long-term problems still pile up.
Pump Station Five, directly along the banks of the Ohio, is the first station that's turned on when high waters hit Ironton. Pump engines have caught fire over the decades and, a few years ago, Pemberton said, the electrical switchgear controlling the station's pumps also went up in flames. He said his department was only able to afford the $198,000 switchgear repair cost because of a city insurance payment.
But he can't rely on insurance for the future, he said, as all of his stations have the same outdated switchgears that could fail. He estimates each station would cost around the same amount to receive an upgrade — money he and other Ohio River communities in similar situations struggle to find.
"You can imagine the maintenance and repairs and the parts and pieces that it would take and the cost it would take to keep a 1940 car on the road today," said Sherry Wilkins, director of the Huntington Stormwater Utility. "That's kind of what we're dealing with here, we're dealing with an 80-year-old system."
Wilkins said Huntington encounters a lot of the type of problems with an aging system that Pemberton described in Ironton.
The flood defense employees she manages often have to hunt across the country for pump station replacement parts, like leather straps or metal brackets, or pay extra to get custom parts made, simply because the parts for the World War II-era equipment aren't manufactured anymore.
"Our floodwall has a 50-year design life," Wilkins said, meaning that obscure replacement parts must be custom-made and can cost thousands of dollars. "The average person wouldn't think of that, 'Wow, does it really cost $20,000 to repair a pump?' So, currently we don't have the money to do those kinds of things continually."
Wilkins said grant funding is tight because of competition with dozens of other municipalities in need. And in older cities, other aging infrastructure issues may be a higher priority when it comes to applying for grants.
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers photo of Fourth Avenue in Huntington, West Virginia, during the 1937 flood. (Credit: Huntington District, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)
If there were a flood that damaged Huntington's downtown floodwall, the Corps of Engineers would not help the city pay for repairs.
The federal government fully funds repairs to a system after a disaster through the Rehabilitation and Inspection Program, but only if the system meets basic inspection requirements. The Corps of Engineers inspects flood defense systems annually on physical flaws and administrative practices, such as whether cities practice routine floodwall gate closures.
If the inspection is considered at least "minimally acceptable," the Corps will cover damage from a disaster.
The reason Huntington's downtown floodwall does not qualify? A sinkhole, almost the size of a car, threatens to swallow up ground near the city's 11th Street Pump Station.
"It's not just Huntington, it's every single floodwall that was built in the 1930s, 1940s. It is not a luxury. It is a necessity," Wilkins said. "It's a problem nationwide."
With scientists predicting warmer temperatures and more frequent flooding due to climate change, the urgency is growing to address aging infrastructure.
A sinkhole looms underneath the 11th Street Pump Station along the floodwall in Huntington, West Virginia. (Credit: Liam Niemeyer, Ohio Valley ReSource)
Huntington as warm as Los Angeles. Cincinnati as hot as Atlanta: Those are just some of the predicted temperature rises in the Ohio River basin in the coming century, according to a 2017 report studying the effects of climate change. The Army Corps, the National Weather Service, regional universities and other federal and state partners worked on the study.
Jim Noel is a service coordination hydrologist with the National Weather Service Ohio River Forecast Center and one of the authors of the study. He said the higher temperatures predicted in the study tend to increase the amount of water evaporation, which not only could mean more rainfall but also increase the frequency and severity of floods and droughts throughout the basin.
Already, several cities in the region saw record rainfall in 2018. Cincinnati saw its third wettest year, and Charleston, Pittsburgh, Columbus and Louisville all saw their wettest year ever.
Some levee systems in parts of the Ohio River basin — including Huntington and Ironton — could see an average annual river streamflow increase of 25% to 35% by 2099. That increases the chance of another flood on the scale of the historic one in 1937.
Noel said the Ohio River basin today has several extra protections beyond the floodwalls and levees, such as dams and reservoirs along tributary rivers, that help control water levels before they reach levee systems.
"The 1937 flood happened before most of the flood control projects in the Ohio basin," Noel said. "Therefore, for example, like if you look at Cincinnati, Ohio, or Louisville, Kentucky, those kind of cities, if 1937 were to exactly repeat itself, the crest on the Ohio River would be some 8 to 10 feet lower in many locations because of the great ability of the Army Corps of Engineers to regulate that flow in that water through their flood control projects."
And the height of some older floodwalls and levees could already be capable of handling higher waters, according to Kate White who led the 2017 Corps study.
White said levee projects created in the 1940s often estimated how high to build their levees using what's called the freeboard method. Past engineers would calculate how high potential floods could be from historical records and then add a few feet on top of that height as a buffer. While newer levees have a more modern analysis for calculating the right flood protection height, she said the old method still offers relatively robust protection.
"I just think there are older things that are still perfectly fine if they've been maintained and looked after," White said.
Flood protection managers including Pemberton, Wilkins and others along the Ohio River generally agree that stationary floodwalls and earthen levees are relatively solid compared to the moving parts of pump station equipment.
Signs marking the 1937 flood height in Ironton, Ohio, helped to support passage of a 2014 flood protection tax levy. (Credit: Liam Niemeyer, Ohio Valley ReSource)
Army Corps Huntington District Levee Safety Program Manager John Ferguson said he expects all the levee systems in the upper Ohio Valley to perform as expected. But the increasing age is still a question.
"Maybe the general consensus on most of these projects is a 50-year design life, but again, that's not a hard or fast rule that really means anything," Ferguson said. "And yes, that just proves that it's aging infrastructure like everything else in the country. We just got to take care of it and make sure we maintain it."
Army Corps officials like Ferguson are relying on a system called Levee Safety Action Classification to help prioritize which aging levee systems carry more risk. A levee gets a risk classification based on its condition and the people and property it protects.
Twelve levee systems in the Ohio River basin have a "high" risk classification, including in Huntington, Louisville and systems protecting cities as small as Brookport, Illinois. This classification calls on officials to increase the "frequency of levee monitoring" and ensure the "community is aware of flood warning and evacuation procedures."
The risk surrounding aging levees was a prominent topic at a Huntington meeting in November among several local levee project managers. Corps officials, including Ferguson, recommended that managers join forces to be a louder voice for federal funding.
"It's a completely different story if you have every project, from Parkersburg to Maysville, that raises their hand and says, 'Hey, we've got aging infrastructure,'" Ferguson said. "If there's a lot of 'squeaky wheels,' it gets a lot of grease."
Pemberton in Ironton said there was once an association of regional floodwall managers who advocated for infrastructure improvements, but that group dissolved in the early 2000s. He isn't sure what future flooding from climate change will look like, but he said he believes banding flood defense managers together will help alleviate some of the uncertainty.
And when Pemberton hears about climate change from local meteorologists, the nagging worries he has for the future only continue to dog him.
"'What if' I guess [are] the two big words. 'What if?'"
Liam Niemeyer, a reporter for Ohio Valley ReSource, authored this story. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.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.
The city of Newport, Kentucky, is shaped on its north and west borders by the Ohio and Licking rivers. And while Newport hosts entertainment venues and a bourbon distillery bolstered by views of Cincinnati's skyline, its geography and history also create challenges.
As a Rust Belt town with a steel mill and a lead smelting plant no longer in use, Newport's population of 15,000 people is half of what it was in 1960.
The community is left with many vacant lots, more concrete than greenspace, and sewers that overflow into streets and basements after a hard rain.
To slow the flow, residents have adopted the idea of strategic depaving. Depaving, or removing unnecessary pavement, creates the opportunity for more greenspace and makes it more likely that rainwater would be absorbed rather than entering the outdated infrastructure.
With the community looking to be part of the solution, the goal became to "design those amenities to provide the ecosystem services that we want from green infrastructure," said Kirsten Schwarz, who led the effort in her capacity as director of the Northern Kentucky University Ecological Stewardship Institute.
A pile of concrete sits in Newport, Kentucky, on Dec. 8, 2019. A coalition is building more parks to increase greenspace and grass to absorb rainwater and reduce strain on outdated stormwater infrastructure. (Credit: Leigh Taylor/Eye on Ohio)
With an outdated stormwater system, Northern Kentucky's Sanitation District [SD1] sees more than 1 billion gallons annually of combined sewer overflows (storm and sanitary).
When more than a quarter inch of rain is predicted, SD1 notifies residents in its service area via their Wet Weather Notification Program to avoid direct contact with local waterways and the pathogens flowing through them.
In 2005, SD1 entered into a consent decree with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet with the intention of mitigating overflows by 2025. In February 2019, SD1 requested an extension to the year 2040.
The infrastructure upgrades needed to meet their goals is estimated to cost $1.3 billion.
"The extension will allow us to spread infrastructure capital costs over a longer period, reducing the financial impact to our customers while ensuring progress on overflow mitigation," said SD1 Executive Director Adam Chaney.
A man walks along a grassy berm near the Ohio River across from Cincinnati, Ohio. (Credit: Leigh Taylor/Eye on Ohio)
While SD1 is hoping for a new 2040 deadline to make its upgrades, Newport community members are seeking solutions now.
The university Ecological Stewardship Institute "wanted to work in the neighborhood on a project developed around community needs," said Schwarz, the institute's director.
Together with community partners ReNewport and Westside Citizens' Coalition, they conducted a survey and found the two main things Newport community members asked for was access to greenspace and better water quality.
With that input, the coalition pitched to Newport the concept of strategic depaving.
Then, they asked at community meetings: "Where would you like to see greenspace and how would you use it?"
About six months into the community engagement that began in July 2018, the City of Newport learned of the efforts and reached out to Schwarz with an idea.
In 2015, the city built The Scholar House — a building for housing and education — on the site of the original Bernadette Watkins Park.
"They owed the neighborhood a park," Schwarz said. The city had an open field directly across the street from the original park location because it demolished a housing complex there to accommodate road expansion. The city hoped it could develop a new Bernadette Watkins Park in that space and align it with the efforts of the coalition.
Thanks to a grant from Perfetti van Melle, an Italian manufacturer of confectionery and gum, the city installed playground equipment on Sept. 27. The next phase of the new Bernadette Watkins Park includes plans for rain and pollinator gardens.
"We were excited to see the results of their community input process, as it validated the city's efforts in the park as well," said Larisa Sims, assistant city manager of Newport and the city's project manager for the park.
A view just west of the Taylor Southgate Bridge across the river from Cincinnati, Ohio. (Credit: Leigh Taylor/Eye on Ohio)
The ultimate goal of green infrastructure is to keep rainwater as close to where it falls as possible. When an urban area lacks greenspace, water can't get absorbed and it overwhelms the wastewater collection system. Many older river cities have outdated infrastructure.
ReNewport approaches stormwater challenges in its community by assessing vacant lots for greenspace opportunities.
"We're really trying to make as many tiny sponges around the neighborhood as possible," said Steve Mathison, vice president for ReNewport.
They're doing this in three ways: depaving, installing rain barrels and rain gardens, and planting trees.
A small shelter with benches at Bernadette Watkins Park in Newport, Kentucky. (Credit: Leigh Taylor/Eye on Ohio)
While the Bernadette Watkins Park was being reestablished on the west side of Newport, ReNewport had another depaving project planned for the east side. They acquired a lot that was once a gas station. They pulled concrete, tested and leveled the soil, and planted trees along its perimeter. More community engagement forums will help decide the future of the space.
ReNewport has decided to take what Northern Kentucky University began and formally adopt a strategic depaving project for Newport. The organization has identified more than 100 lots within the city with future greenspace potential.
"ReNewport has been involved since the very beginning," Schwarz said, "and we're so excited they want to take it over."
Strategic depaving wasn't something that was necessarily in ReNewport's plan aside from beautifying lots, Mathison said.
But "it captures the spirit of multiple small organizations coming together to create a bigger project and have a positive impact on stormwater issues. We're looking forward to seeing positive results in the neighborhood within the next year."
Bonnie Jean Feldkamp is a Cincinnati-based freelance writer. Find her on social media @WriterBonnie or at WriterBonnie.com.
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.
The group's executive director says the debate around the ethane cracker being built in his county is predictable. Instead of being for or against it, his group is ready to "do the hard work of developing healthy and creative community together."
Dave Watkins lives on Wheeling Island, the most populated island along the Ohio River.
In the early 1800s, it was referred to as the "garden spot of Wheeling," perhaps because its rich topsoil yielded verdant plants and lush gardens. Today, the West Virginia island isn't necessarily thought of as farmland. Instead, its neighborhoods are full of historic Victorian and working-class homes; most have weathered centuries of flooding. But in an area troubled by drugs, 58-year-old Dave has turned a small vacant plot into a peaceful spot for beekeeping and gardening.
Dave Watson says once beekeeping is in your blood, "it's hard to shake it." (Credit: Rebecca Kiger/100 Days in Appalachia)
"Beekeeping has been something I've done for all my life," Dave says. "I will probably do it until the day I die. It's one of those things that gets in your blood and once it's in your blood, it's hard to shake it."
He acquired his plot on the island after the passing of two neighbors who he'd spent years caring for — Libby in 2015 and her daughter Mary in 2018. In 2014, he'd convinced Libby and Mary to turn their empty yard into the gardens that have helped support him financially and emotionally ever since. He, in turn, provided the two women fresh vegetables grown on the land.
The rest of the produce was sold at farmer's markets, which provided enough of an income that Dave was able to transition out of a traditional 9-to-5 job. He has worked in everything from pest control to agriculture to commercial painting; he refers to himself as a jack of all trades. Within the last year, he converted the plot from vegetables to fruit, which Dave says are easier to maintain as he ages. They are establishing a pick-your-own berry patch, where they will sell berries by the pound to people living in the economically struggling community.
Dave Watson grew up along the Ohio River, but had a challenging childhood. At a young age, he was placed in foster care where his foster parents taught him to live off of the land. (Credit: Rebecca Kiger/100 Days in Appalachia)
"We didn't do the garden thing to try to improve the community, but we get a lot of people come by and say how we're doing such a nice job in the garden," Dave recounts. "It's something Wheeling Island needs."
And it's something he needs. It provides an income, but also a place to bond with his three children and eight grandchildren, like 4-year-old Izzy who helps pick strawberries.
While he's dedicating the land to Libby and Mary, he will name the berry patch after his wife, Cheryl. Dave says she has taught him how to love over the years and continues to do so each and every day.
Cheryl's Berry Patch will open in 2020 for its first season.
Rebecca Kiger, the author of this story, is a documentary photographer based out of Central Appalachia (Wheeling, West Virginia). She can be reached at email@example.com.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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, southwest 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 Coalition, 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 firstname.lastname@example.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.
NEW ALBANY, Ind. — When Jason Flickner was a kid, he built a dam on the creek behind his grandparents' house causing it to flood a neighbor's basement.
When he tells the story now — at 45 and living in the same house — he says his dam was a violation of the federal Clean Water Act.
The story captures Flickner's current situation: a life interwoven with the waters of southern Indiana and the house his grandfather built in this Ohio River town, intimate knowledge of one of the nation's premier environmental laws, and a good plan going a little sideways.
Flickner is the executive director of the Lower Ohio River Waterkeeper, a nonprofit he started in 2017 to be the voice for the stretch of the Ohio that runs 300 miles from roughly Louisville, Kentucky, to Evansville, Indiana. He's a career environmental advocate who doesn't see many opportunities in that line of work in this part of the country.
He's starting to think it's time to walk away, but he feels bound to New Albany. Both his grandparents have died; the future of the estate is uncertain, and Flickner doesn't want to let it go.
"I feel like not only am I walking away from the family homestead, I'm walking away from the fight that I've been putting up for 20 years," Flickner said from his sitting room, lit through large windows covered in nose prints from his dogs, Willow and Murphy.
To him, building the nonprofit to where it can pay him $40,000 a year is his best chance to keep the house his grandfather built while fighting for a river that he feels called to protect from industrial and agricultural pollution. "I don't want to give that up," he said.
Dan Canon, a New Albany civil rights attorney and all-around progressive advocate, said Flickner has earned his environmental bonafides.
Jason Flickner points out features of the Ohio River from the fossil beds at the Falls of the Ohio State Park. (Credit: Jeff Brooks-Gillies/Environmental Health News)
"As far as people that are really slugging it out for the conservation movement in southern Indiana, he really is at the top of the pyramid," Canon said. "He would know more than probably anybody from here to Indianapolis about what that effort looks like."
And he's at home here. After saying goodbye to the dogs, Flickner drove through New Albany, smoke from his Winston cigarette rolling out the open window, giving a nonstop history lesson of the area: The glaciers that formed the hills (called "knobs") folded up against the city's west side, the exposed fossil beds at the Falls of the Ohio, the buffalo trace where millions of American bison once passed through while migrating between Kentucky and Illinois. This is the land that he knows.
But he's broke.
He started that day with an overdraft notice on his personal checking account. The organization hasn't raised enough to pay him a salary. He's paying bills through side work and an inheritance. He said the organization had around $1,000 in mid-September, which had dwindled to $50 by late October. The way he sees it, he may need to head to the coast where environmental work is more plentiful unless his board agrees to help make a $100,000 fundraising push over the next year.
"We're to that 'do or die' moment," he said.
He's not alone. Other red state Waterkeeper leaders — whose groups are all members of the national Waterkeeper Alliance — say they're also struggling to grow. Progressive grassroots organizing isn't impossible, but getting local buy-in can be tough. Waterkeeper's mission of "holding polluters accountable" can mean suing companies in a state where "Indiana is open for business" is a catchphrase for elected officials. And in Flickner's case, the Ohio River is so big and has been so polluted for so long, even like-minded people aren't convinced they can make a difference, he said.
But they can, Flickner said, by paying him to pull the levers built into the Clean Water Act.
The house Jason Flickner's grandparents built in the 1970s sits in the hills on the west side of New Albany, Indiana. (Credit: Jeff Brooks-Gillies/Environmental Health News)
Flickner was born in West Lafayette in north central Indiana and has had a bedroom in his grandparents' house since fourth grade. His grandfather was an outdoorsman who raised beagle hounds, ran rabbits on horseback, hunted mushrooms and fished. He'd wake Flickner up on Saturdays at 4 a.m. to net minnows for the day's fishing trip.
Flickner absorbed his grandfather's outdoor ethos, preferring time in nature as long as he can remember. He'd go on to earn a bachelor's degree from Indiana University with a specialization from its School of Public and Environmental Affairs, a well-ranked program in environmental policy.
His first advocacy job was canvassing, where he learned to talk quickly and connect with people.
It also gave him an early lesson in what it means to be a progressive activist in a conservative region. In 1998 in rural Indiana, a local sheriff who received complaints picked up Flickner and his canvassing partner and drove them to the county line. They nearly missed their van ride home.
"He actually took us to the jail before he took us to the county line" even though they weren't breaking any laws, Flickner said. "He was big and he was mean and he had his hand on his gun the whole time."
The canvasser in him still comes out. One mid-October afternoon, Flickner accepted a free bottle of water from a small group of young Christians spreading the word of God on the Big Four Bridge that connects the neighboring city of Jeffersonville with Louisville across the river. He delivered a five-minute spiel on Lower Ohio River Waterkeeper, handed out his business card and invited the missionaries to volunteer all before they could ask if he knew Jesus. ("I know Jesus very well," he said.)
He had been part of on-and-off talks with Waterkeeper Alliance, the national nonprofit that licenses local groups like Fickner's, for years to start a Lower Ohio River Waterkeeper group, but the timing was never right. In 2017, having just left a full-time job based in Indianapolis and looking for a way to stay in New Albany with his aging mother in their family home, he said it was a necessity.
Jason Flickner talks with a group of youth missionaries on the Big Four Bridge over the Ohio River. (Credit: Jeff Brooks-Gillies/Environmental Health News)
This isn't just a job for the sake of a job: The Ohio River is in trouble. Flickner often points out it is the most polluted river in the United States, a distinction the Ohio earned from reports of industrial discharge data that show it taking in, pound for pound, more commercial waste than the Mississippi River.
The waste includes nutrients and toxic heavy metals from coal plants and steel and chemical industries. Nutrients from agricultural runoff and sewer overflows are increasingly fueling harmful algal blooms. A toxic bloom covered 636 miles of the 981-mile river in 2015. Another bloom this year led Louisville Ironman organizers to cancel the Ohio River swim portion of the event. Environmental groups have also criticized the Ohio River Valley Water and Sanitation Commission, an interstate water quality agency known as ORSANCO, for not being tougher on mercury pollution from power plants and other sources.
Flickner's resumé looks tailor-made for this work. After canvassing, he learned the ins and outs of the Clean Water Act while challenging mountaintop removal mine permits with the Kentucky Waterways Alliance. He also fought ORSANCO for stronger pollution standards.
"I know him as a conservation warrior," said Canon, the civil rights attorney. "If you start talking about conservation around here, his name's gonna come up."
And Flickner has already notched a win. In 2018, ORSANCO proposed eliminating its water quality standards for the river. Despite having nonprofit status for less than a year, Flickner appeared in multiple media reports criticizing the proposal, helped rally thousands of public comments and lobbied commissioners. The proposal was withdrawn, and the commission passed a weaker version months later.
The New Albany Riverfront Amphitheater hosts events near downtown set against the Ohio River and the Sherman Minton Bridge. (Credit: Jeff Brooks-Gillies/Environmental Health News)
Still, he wasn't able to translate that publicity into a fundraising bump, he said. He hasn't raised much money at all.
Part of the problem is his skillset: He's always worked on the policy side and much less on development and isn't sure how to cultivate large donors, which is work he says should be part of his board's job. He's also not entirely confident in his interpersonal skills.
"The way that I talk to people about this stuff, it turns people off because it's just so despairing or it's so overwhelming or it's so complex," he said.
He also said this kind of work is more difficult in historically red states like Indiana, and he's not the only one who thinks that.
Since 2003, Rae Schnapp has been the Wabash Riverkeeper, which covers the watershed to the north of Flickner's as part of the Waterkeeper Alliance. She said it's still a struggle to grow, to recruit board members and volunteers. She said the national Waterkeeper group is getting better at supporting its individual member organizations, but they don't provide funding. Member groups also pay a fee for the Waterkeeper name, which Schnapp said "might mean different things to different people."
Robert F. Kennedy Jr., an environmental attorney carrying a name intrinsically tied to the Democratic Party, functions as the group's figurehead, she said.
"That sets the tone for the whole organization, which does sometimes make it difficult in red states," she said. "But hey, Indiana is a swing state now, so maybe it will be getting a little easier."
Jessie Green, of the White River Waterkeeper in Arkansas, started her organization around the same time as Flickner, and they often commiserate about their struggles. She said she's doing better than she was two years ago, having recruited around 200 members who give an annual donation. She's even being paid some, though it's less than she made in graduate school. She said she's mostly working as a volunteer, which works for now because her husband makes enough to keep them afloat. But it's not sustainable, she said.
"We're in a red state. Environmentalist is almost a four-letter word in our area," she said. "That's definitely part of the struggle."
But the problem for Flickner isn't all party-line opposition to environmental causes. A person looking upstream from the pedestrian bridge where Flickner met the missionaries sees a 2,000-foot-wide river that winds back 600 miles to Pittsburgh through a century of industrial pollution and development. It's easy to wonder: What could anyone possibly do about it?
"People know that it's problematic," Canon said. "People know that we should be doing more to keep the water clean. But the problem is so big for most of us that we don't really stop to think about it in terms of what are the mechanics of actually making it happen."
Flickner sees it similarly, often saying that people, regardless of their political affiliation, "wear blinders" to the problem because it feels too big. But the mechanics are clear to him: You sue.
"We're not talking about population growth," Flickner said, giving a common example of an intractable environmental problem. "We're talking about a river where there are actual permits" issued by the state that can be challenged in court.
But to do that, he needs money (because litigation isn't cheap) and members (to convince a judge his group has legal standing).
Jason Flickner watches his dogs run in the yard of his home in New Albany, Indiana. (Credit: Jeff Brooks-Gillies/Environmental Health News)
Flickner is just as frustrated with the people who he knows agree with him on environmental issues. They tell him the work he's doing is important, but they don't donate. They complain about the Trump administration's environmental rollbacks, but they don't give to causes that are fighting the effects.
The day he woke up to a checking overdraft, he said he blew up at two old friends who "commented in ignorance" in text messages about the Environmental Protection Agency's recent weakening of the Waters of the United States rule, which defines the bodies of water that fall under federal jurisdiction. The next morning, he woke up to an email notice that one of the friends had set up a recurring annual $500 donation to Lower Ohio River Waterkeeper. He was grateful.
In the meantime, in the sitting room with the dog-licked windows, there's a table with stuff from his grandparents' house to sort through to see what he might be able to sell. There are also remnants of his grandparents' turn as antique dealers — chairs, baskets — that aren't family heirlooms and might get a good price from a local shop.
"I've been broke on and off like this my entire life," he said. "Something will come through. Something always does."
Jeff Brooks-Gillies, a freelance writer for Environmental Health News, authored this story. He can be reached at email@example.com.
The R.E. Burger coal-fired power plant's final day ended, appropriately enough, in a cloud of black smoke and dust.
From 1944 to 2011, the plant generated power, fumes and ash in the Ohio River Valley. It was one of dozens of coal and steel plants dotting the banks of the river, which for years has ranked among the nation's most heavily polluted. Then, on July 29, 2016, following a series of detonations that echoed across the Ohio, the boiler house at the base of the smokestack crumpled amid flickers of flame. The 854-foot-tall tower toppled sideways, struck ground and sent up puffs of dirt and brick. In footage posted online, the noise is drowned out by the sound of whooping and applause from thousands of people who'd gathered in lawn chairs along the riverbanks to watch.
The demolition of the R.E. Burger plant is symbolic of one of the most significant energy transitions in U.S. history. Two out of every five power plants that burned coal to make electricity in 2010 were shut down by 2018, largely replaced by natural gas power plants — the result of a decade-long fracking rush. Few places have been quite as dramatically impacted as the northern Ohio River Valley, where shale well pads now lace the backroads of Appalachia's former coal towns. Twenty-nine new gas-fired power plants are planned or under construction in Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia alone.
Historically, coal and steel marched hand in hand — coal powered the steel mills that built the Rust Belt. Now, with natural gas, industry can make a different kind of raw material, one that drillers and the International Energy Agency say represents the future of global demand for oil and gas: plastics.
The vast majority of petrochemical production in the United States has always taken place along the Gulf Coast. But, drawn by low-priced shale gas from fracking in Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia, the petrochemical industry is increasingly eyeing the Ohio River Valley as a manufacturing corridor.
Oil giants are banking on plastics and petrochemicals to keep the fossil fuel industry expanding amid rising concern over climate change. "Unlike refining, and ultimately unlike oil, which will see a moment when the growth will stop, we actually don't anticipate that with petrochemicals," Andrew Brown, upstream director for Royal Dutch Shell, told the San Antonio Express-News last year. Industry analysts have projected the region could support as many as seven additional plants on a similar scale. The American Chemistry Council has tallied $36 billion in potential investment that could be tied to an Ohio River Valley petrochemical and plastic manufacturing industry.
Projects currently on the drawing board would unleash a flood of newly manufactured plastic from the region, using raw materials from fracked shale gas wells. Shell's $6 billion ethane cracker in Potter Township in Beaver County, Pa., is projected to create roughly 3.5 billion pounds of polyethylene pellets each year. A similar volume is expected from a second plant proposed just over an hour's drive south in Dilles Bottom, Ohio — to be built on the site of the razed R.E. Burger coal-fired power plant.
Green-lighting petrochemical projects along the Ohio River could bring new industrial vitality to a region that's been hard hit by the slow decline of American coal and steel. It could also bring a host of issues. Shell's cracker will be permitted to pump out 522 tons of volatile organic compounds into the air — nearly double the amount that the state's current largest source, U.S. Steel's Clairton Coke Works, produced in 2014 (the most recent year available). State permits also allow Shell to produce 2.25 million tons of carbon dioxide. That means this one plant, with its 600 jobs, will wield a carbon footprint one-third the size of Pittsburgh (population 301,000).
Plastic made on the banks of the Ohio is likely to reach the farthest corners of the globe. Shale Crescent USA, an industry group, projects that half of the plastic made on the Ohio would be shipped to Asia for use there. Only 9% of the plastic ever made has been recycled, with the vast majority of the rest winding up in landfills or oceans.
On a hillside overlooking Shell's petrochemical plant in Monaca, Pa., new houses are going up in a subdevelopment tucked behind a shopping mall. "Like the view?" a sign posted by builder Ryan Homes reads. "Stop by our model home to find out how it can be yours!" From the cul-de-sac, you can watch Shell build its ethane cracker in the valley. Three dozen towering cranes, including one of the world's tallest, are assisting in assembling the plant. The cracker's components, like a 285-foot-tall quench tower, are often so massive that they wouldn't fit on roads and had to be shipped in by barge.
Shell's plant hasn't yet started pumping out plastics. It's expected to be fully operational in the early 2020s. The cracker will heat ethane — a natural gas liquid abundant in the region's shale wells — at temperatures so high that the molecule cracks and becomes ethylene. Ethylene can be transformed into polyethylene, the plastic familiar to consumers from food packaging, milk jugs and garden furniture.
Old-timers will tell you the air around Pittsburgh used to be so thick with sooty particles that city workers would change into new shirts at lunch. These days, the skies look much clearer. That doesn't mean all of the dangers have dissipated. "What comes out of a well pad, what comes out of a compressor station, what comes out of an ethane cracker plant are pretty similar," Dr. Ned Ketyer said at a community forum in St. Clairsville, Ohio. Ketyer is a pediatrician who serves on the board of Physicians for Social Responsibility Pennsylvania.
"It's important to note that almost all of these are invisible," including the chemical fumes and tiny particulate matter from gas and plastics operations, Ketyer said. "You can't see it, but it's so small that it gets into the deepest part of the lungs and can get absorbed into the bloodstream."
At the forum organized by Concerned Ohio River Residents, an environmental group, Ketyer played video footage recorded in August by environmental nonprofit Earthworks with a special FLIR camera at a compressor station and at two different drilling sites. "Everything looks nice and peaceful, nice and clean, nothing going on here," he said. But in the FLIR camera footage, "you can see the air filling up with emissions."
The Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project took the data from Shell's air pollution permits and, assuming that the plant would actually pump out half as much as its permits allowed, ran the numbers on how high emissions exposure would reach, Ketyer said. The report found that a cancer treatment center next to the subdevelopment would expose those breathing outside to an "extreme" level of five hazardous air pollutants. The mall itself would see emissions four-and-a-half times higher than the cancer center.
Studies have found that those fumes can make people ill. "We've known for decades that certain pollution causes certain symptoms," said Ketyer, listing as examples headaches, shortness of breath, impaired thinking and changes in blood pressure. "So right here, Beaver Valley Mall, this is 1 mile directly downwind from the cracker plant," he continued. "It's going to be inhospitable, if not uninhabitable, in my opinion."
Illustration of a firefighter (circa 1940s) by David Wilson/Belt Magazine.
About an hour east, Donora, Pa., is home to a historical society and museum emblazoned with the words: "Clean Air Started Here." There is also a striking number of empty buildings. About 4,600 people call Donora home, according to census data, roughly a third as many as a century ago. More than 8,000 people used to work at the steelworks here, owned by American Steel and Wire Co., a U.S. Steel subsidiary. Roughly half worked at the plant's zinc works, used to galvanize wire, nails and other steel products.
The air pollution was anything but invisible back then — and it was never darker than a series of fall days in 1948. Just before Halloween, a thick cloud of smog, known as the "Donora death fog," settled over the town. More than 20 people died within days of respiratory and other problems and more than 6,000 people became ill.
Today, most of the survivors of the smog have passed away, according to Brian Charlton, curator of the Donora Historical Society, but in 2009, filmmakers interviewed 25 people who'd been there. The survivors described how grit and ash from the plant routinely darkened the skies over the town but then, for several days straight, the smoke all seemed to stay trapped in the town. "I worked at the telephone office," Alice Uhriniak told the filmmakers. "We always had smoke in Donora, from the mills and everything, and it was dark. But when I got into the office, and the girls that had worked nighttime, they said, 'Hurry up, get your set on, everybody's dying.'"
Firefighters went through town with oxygen tanks and the town's pharmacy scrambled to supply cough medications, while a community center became an improvised morgue. "I told 'em the best thing they could do at that particular time was to get out of town," Dr. William Rongaus, a Donora physician, told the documentarians. "I had a good idea that just the poisonous gases were coming out of the Donora Zinc Works."
Workers inside the plant who spent too much time breathing high levels of smoke dubbed their symptoms the "zinc shakes," Charlton explained. "They would say, well you couldn't take that environment for more than two or three hours, but their attitude was such that, 'But we could defeat that'…It is this very tough attitude; we can take anything." According to later investigations, the smoke, which carried hydrogen fluoride, sulfur compounds and carbon monoxide, could cause health problems if you inhaled too much at a time.
The week of the "Donora death fog," an unusually prolonged weather pattern left the fumes trapped in the Monongahela River Valley. There was a temperature inversion, Charlton said. "That's the thing that really cause[d] the deaths."
It's an incident that seems burned in the memories of environmentalists. Because the Ohio River Valley is also prone to inversion events, they say, there's a risk that the less visible pollution from ethane crackers could accumulate in the air. Residents often ask about inversions, too, "because that is their daily experience, they're aware of what it feels like to be in that situation," said Megan Hunter, an attorney with Fair Shake Environmental Legal Services.
In January, Fair Shake challenged a state air permit for the cracker proposed at the old R.E. Burger site, arguing that the state failed to properly account for the risks of air inversions. "It's right there in the valley," she added, referring to the proposed cracker plant and to the town of Moundsville, West Virginia, which is directly across the Ohio River. "They're both low and on the river itself."
Officials in the Trump administration say that promoting new petrochemical and plastics projects in the Ohio River Valley can help the shale gas industry by expanding the market for "natural gas liquids," which can command far higher prices than the methane gas that's sold to burn for heat and electricity. "What we need to do is increase the demand for the natural gas and especially the wet portion of the natural gas that we're producing in this region," Steven Winberg, assistant secretary at the U.S. Department of Energy, said at a petrochemical industry conference hosted by the West Virginia Manufacturers Association in April. "And that's going to be done through the domestic ethane crackers and the strong export market that we see for the products coming out of these crackers, for the plastics and resin."
That plan would tie the Ohio River Valley's economic fate to the natural gas industry, which — unlike coal and steel — has become notorious for its rapid booms and busts. Right now, counties in the shale "sweet spots" around the Ohio river hum with trucks on the highways, green compressor stations pumping fracked gas through pipelines, and the stream of deliveries to Shell's cracker. Reports produced by industry groups predict plastics and petrochemical projects could support 101,000 jobs in Appalachia (though a closer look shows that three-quarters of those potential jobs fall into the "indirect" and "induced" categories, not jobs at the new plants).
But shale drilling's economic foundation could prove to be as brittle as the shale itself. Over the past decade, while horizontal drilling and fracking have unleashed enormous volumes of natural gas and the natural gas liquids prized by plastics manufacturers, drillers have frequently found themselves deep in debt, as the supply glut drove prices low. A growing amount of that debt is expected to come due soon, analysts say. The Wall Street Journal reported in August that, from July to December, drillers will have to pay off $9 billion in debt, and that number will rise to $137 billion between 2020 and 2022. That spells risk for companies counting on a supply glut and low prices to continue for decades into the future.
And then there are the externalized costs. Matt Mehalik, executive director of the Breathe Project, said his Pittsburgh-based organization tallied projected health costs from the construction of three cracker plants in the Ohio River Valley, estimating from $120 million to $272 million a year nationwide. Over the 30-year lives of the plants, Mehalik projected, those health costs would reach $3.6 to $8.1 billion, including nearly $1 billion in Allegheny County, where Pittsburgh is located, and $1.4 billion in Beaver County, where the Shell plant is being built.
The economics left some concerned that history could repeat itself. "Look what coal left this area. Not very much," said Steven Zann, of Wheeling, West Virginia, who formerly worked at an aluminum plant. Zann was skeptical about the claim that the plastics industry could fill the shoes that steel left empty, in terms of jobs. "That's why they're always exaggerating the amount of employment it will create," he said. "It's not really going to be that. It's not going to be the new steel."
The Donora steelworks employed 8,000 workers at its height and supported virtually an entire town of 14,000. After construction ends, the Shell cracker will employ 600 in Monaca, a town of 5,500 — and that number includes engineers and other highly skilled workers expected to come from outside Monaca.
Illustration of Shell's ethane cracker plant by David Wilson/Belt Magazine.
Driving Route 7 along the Ohio River near Bev Reed's hometown brings you past power plants and a coal stockpile so tall that locals call it Murray's mountain, after Murray Energy's founder Bob Murray. Head north, and Route 7 will bring you just shy of Little Blue Run, the largest coal ash impoundment in the country, which spans the West Virginia/Pennsylvania border. Drive south, and you'll pass the old R.E. Burger site, where land is being cleared to pave the way for the cracker, and past the expanding Blue Racer Natrium complex, where shale gas is separated from the liquids prized by the plastics industry.
In June, Pittsburgh's mayor announced that the Steel City would commit to getting 100% of its power from renewable energy within 16 years. Environmental groups warn that pursuing a petrochemical buildout in the surrounding region would undo the climate benefits from that shift.
Some of those born and raised in the Ohio River Valley, like Reed, have begun organizing to fight the arrival of the petrochemical industry.
Grassroots organizations, like the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition and the recently formed People Over Petro coalition, say they're working to prevent a "cancer valley" in Appalachia (in a reference to the notorious "cancer alley" in Louisiana). They've held protests outside of industry conferences, organized meetings at public libraries and spoken on a bus tour of the valley organized by environmental groups earlier this year for reporters and policy-makers.
Reed's family owns a bicycle shop in Bridgeport, Ohio, which opened in 1973. Up the hill from the shop, water flows from the ground around the clock, staining the concrete pavement an orange-red. "My whole life, it's been like this," said Reed, 27, who also works at the shop. She described it as acid mine discharge from coal mining. "It keeps flowing down, and the river is right over there."
Plastic itself has climate impacts at each step from the gas well to disposal, whether it is incinerated, sent to a dump (where it can "off-gas" greenhouse gases if exposed to sunlight) or may even disrupt ocean food chains, vital to the ocean's absorption of carbon, according to a report published in May by the Center for International Environmental Law.
"We can't deal with the plastic as it is," said Reed, who started interning for Sierra Club after hearing about the industry's plans for the valley, "so why would you want to make more rather than use what we already have or create more jobs in the recycling industry?"
The Ohio River Valley, like the rest of the United States, stands at a crossroads of energy and industry, facing decisions about whether to turn toward a future of renewable energy and a green jobs revolution or one of shale gas and plastics.
Some might say there are clear skies ahead, regardless of direction, as the valley turns its back on coal and steel. But a question hangs in the air, thick as smog: Can the public here in the hills and valleys along the Ohio count on decision-makers to steer around the less-visible hazards as they chart a course forward?
Sharon Kelly, a freelance writer for Belt Magazine, authored this story. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.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.
I live right above the Ohio River, off of a thoroughfare called the Ohio River Boulevard.
It is one section of Route 65 – a 51-mile stretch of highway that travels from downtown Pittsburgh, northwest to the city of New Castle. The route spans three counties, three major rivers and several neighborhoods, boroughs, towns and tributaries as it makes its way through Western Pennsylvania's industrial belt.
For me, living so close to the Ohio River evokes mixed feelings. The river trail that I like to walk along near my apartment is scenic, yet long stretches of it are flanked by the railroad, warehouses and industrial sites on either side.
At home, I drink water from a filtered pitcher because of years of elevated lead levels in Pittsburgh's water, and I regularly learn about new water threats in the region. I feel a constant push and pull between the things that are good for me and the things that can harm me, but I know my perspective is just one of many.
View of Route 65 from Ambridge, Pa.
My work focuses on how history shapes the contemporary experiences of Black people in the industrial Midwest, and I've been thinking about water as a gateway to explore the deeper forces that shape the lives (and livelihoods) of Black people in this region.
Black residents have traditionally lived close to the waterways — sometimes by choice, but often because of racist housing and land-use policies.
Over the years, the proximity to water allowed access to transit, jobs, bathing, washing, fishing and leisure, but it also placed these communities at a disproportionate risk for flooding, pollution, disease and other issues caused by water.
This history is encapsulated in the area that Route 65 spans. Like the rivers, it is a sort of connective tissue, linking people and places across the region.
I set out to talk to Black residents living in communities along and near Route 65 about where they live and their experiences in these places, in the context of their connections to water.
What you'll read and see isn't a definitive account of Black life in this area. Instead, it will present the stories of a few people, in a few places, and uses water as an entry point to the complex social, political and economic context of the region.
Olivia Bennett on Mt. Pleasant Road in Pittsburgh's Northview Heights neighborhood. Bennett won the Nov. 5 election for the District 13 seat on the Allegheny County Council.
Beaver Avenue in the Woods Run area of Pittsburgh, located in Allegheny County District 13.
"I describe [environmental justice] as being very mindful of what our actions each day, in our livelihoods, how that impacts our environment… But, I also look at it as how it impacts different communities in different ways. A lot of these pollut[ing] plants … they typically go into areas that are predominantly poor and predominantly communities of color. They try to build pipelines on sacred land. If you want the benefits from these plants to benefit the whole, then why are we not putting these plants in other places? Why are they specifically targeted to go to places that can't typically advocate for themselves?
"One of the things I've been fighting [in Northview Heights] is slow repairs. I mean, my courtyard always floods every time it rains. They're supposed to be redoing it. They were supposed to be doing it for the last five years. So that type of thing, those types of fights. Just because we are living in public housing does not make us any less human. …How can we make sure that everybody's coming along at the same rate to be able to fight against this? What creativity can we come along with to allow people to take ownership and be given the tools?"
Jamie Younger owns and operates Young Brothers Bar, pictured on the corner of Woods Run and McClure avenues, on the border of the Woods Run and Brighton Heights neighborhoods of Pittsburgh.
Jamie Younger working inside Young Brothers Bar.
"Historically, Black people didn't cross over Woods Run Avenue in my father's time. At the time I went to [high school], when we came out of school at the end of the day, it seemed like the Black people walked right, and the white people walked left down this way. I never made that left, even to explore or venture. I bought a house up here after getting outta college and been here ever since.
"When I first moved up here, when the wind blew, the smell was vicious. It would stop you in your tracks, and you'd be like, 'Oh that ALCOSAN stinks.' I don't know what they've done over the years to mitigate that because it's not as bad … except maybe after a lot of rain and then the wind blows. But I haven't said that in a while.
"...It definitely keeps evolving geographically where Black folks are at. Black folks are finding it hard to live in the city. They're finding it hard to find affordable housing within the city, and they're going out to places like McKees Rocks … out into Beaver County, Ambridge. So it's like, I don't know — unless you own a home, I don't know where you're gonna go soon in the city, especially within the North Side of the city. It's definitely becoming a challenge to find affordable, quality spaces to live within the city boundaries. It's forever changing."
Terry Stenhouse (left) works with Lethera Harrison behind the counter of Annie Lee's Southern Kitchen.
Annie Lee's Southern Kitchen, owned by Terry Stenhouse, is pictured on the left side of Duss Avenue facing 16th Street in Ambridge, Pa.
"I've always been kinda leery about the quality of the drinking water. I went to school, I took my apprenticeship. I've been doing plumbing off and on since I was like 19. You know, working on the pipes and seeing cross sections of different pipes, and even when I was in the military and I purified water, I've always been kinda skeptical about the testing and the quality of the water. I really don't have too much faith in the purification process, but once the water is purified and they run it through the piping system, in my eyes, it's re-contaminated.
"You know, we all need water. It's essential for life, so everyone's connected to it … but at the same time, lately [for] something that's supposed to be essential to life, [it] has been causing a lot of health problems. I mean we deal with water every day here at the restaurant. We cook with water, we have a filter on it. I just think we need to get better with the water all around. I don't really think that it's anyone's fault to blame, because when these systems were put in, the information we have now wasn't available. I don't think it was done on purpose … it's just being swept under the rug in terms of correcting the problem. So that's what I think."
Elizabeth "Betty" Asche Douglas is an art-culture historian, retired professor, artist and jazz performer. Here she is pictured in her studio in Rochester, Pa.
View of Route 65 and the Ohio River from Rochester, Pa.
"I was born in Rochester, Pa., not too far from where we're sitting right now. I was born in 1930. Rochester, in the 19th century, was one of the most important towns around because it's at the point where the Ohio River turns to go southwest. It gets to Rochester and the Beaver River runs into the Ohio at that point. And that's why today Rochester has five major highways that go through it because of that juncture. It was also because the trains.
"My father was an electronic technician. He started out as a radio man, repairing and making radios and so forth. How we got to Beaver Falls, I don't know, but my first memories of life were in the first house we lived in in Beaver Falls, because it was on First Avenue. Across the street from First Avenue were the railroad tracks, and across from the railroad tracks was the river. So one of my earliest memories is of my father taking me by the hand and walking me down First Avenue, towards the train station there, and it was during the spring of the year of the great floods in Western Pennsylvania — '37, I think. He said, 'When the water gets up to there [she indicated the high-water level with her hand] we will have to leave.' So my first childhood memory is watching the river in the springtime to see how high the water was getting because the houses on First Avenue would be the first ones to go over.
"The river was very important to Black boys especially because there were no swimming pools in Beaver Valley that would allow Black boys to swim in them. So every year there would be a Black kid that drowned in the river because they went down to the river to swim. I don't think the people thought about pollution in those days. And I don't know how garbage or waste or sewage was treated. When you're a kid, you don't think about that. The only thing you knew is you flushed the toilet and it goes away. Where it goes, you don't think about."
Tyrone Ziegler outside of the Beaver Falls wave pool. Ziegler is project manager of the Tigerland Wave Pool initiative, through the Beaver County Community Development Corporation.
"[I'm] originally from New York, but I grew up about a mile down the road from the pool, a place called Koppel. Small town. [Growing up in] Koppel, Beaver Falls, New Brighton — there was always something to do. You could always find a pickup game when it came to basketball or baseball, Wiffle ball … I used to pass here all the time, drive past, ride my back past, because I used to ride my bike all the way from Koppel to New Brighton, just to go play basketball. So I used to ride by and see tons of people outside. The city had owned the property. Trying to maintain the city and the property became too much for them, so they turned the pool over to the YMCA. That just became too much, so they just decided to shut it down.
"I just turned my life around six years ago. So before all that it's been my dream to re-open all of this, but I didn't know how — and I knew people wasn't gonna take a drug dealer serious. As I kept growing and maturing, I saw that people started respecting me a lot more. I seen that I was getting my reputation back. So I was riding by one day and … I just took a glance at it and a light bulb went off, and I said, 'I believe that I can pull this off.' And three years later, [we're] super close.
"My vision is to get these kids off the street. My vision is to give them some type of structure. What about the kids that don't play football, that don't play baseball, that don't play basketball? What about the kids that the parents don't have the funds at all? So all they got is these drug dealers that's their influences and the streets that's their influences. Nobody's really thinking about that. That was my biggest problem, being a follower. Now I'm a leader, and I'm trying to give them a blueprint so they don't have to take that same path that I took. This is a start right here. I'm here. I'm not going anywhere either."
Rev. William Hogans is pictured addressing the congregation at St. Luke during the kickoff gospel event for the church's 175th anniversary weekend celebration in September 2019.
Rev. William Hogans is the pastor of St. Luke A.M.E. Zion Church. The entrance to St. Luke is pictured, overlooking the West Side of New Castle with a view of the Resco Products New Castle plant in the background.
"My father worked in the steel mills. So did my grandfather and so did my uncle. …[The Shenango] is the river that goes down through the middle of New Castle. So, because of the way that the [mills] would use the water, the river was extremely polluted. It was something you ignored. We just know that oftentimes we did not use the water. We never drank from the water. There was a place that we could swim. It was called El Rio Beach, which is funny, 'cause it's … still considered to be in the middle of New Castle.
"People — Black people especially — would go in the summertime, and we would run across and splash across. If the water was high enough, we'd ride the rapids down across the rocks in the creek. When the rain would come, the sewers would wash out and we'd play in the open sewers they were developing 'cause the water was clean, and it was flowing. Very dangerous. We didn't realize it, but that's what we did to keep cool in the summer.
"When I was 17, 18 years old, I left here because the economic plight was so bad. It was so hard to get a job. You know the steel mills, they fluctuated like the tide. Some days you could not not get a job. And then there were other times where they would do layoffs and shutdowns and cut back on production. By the time 1975 came around, when I was getting ready to graduate, there was nothing for me to do as a Black person that I knew of except for work in the grocery store or flip burgers.
"[Now] I'm assigned here, by our Bishop and my vision of God. I wanna do things that make health happen. I want to create a garden — two of them. There are natural springs in New Castle. I want to create a water treatment plant where we create our own bottled water. My hope for the role of the church is that we awaken people to the need for economic and spiritual and social empowerment. New Castle has declined. It's shrunk in population base. The population is much older. That's the challenge for the church: how to be a relevant agent of change for the better, where harmony and a healthy existence can occur. And my vision and hope is to create that."
Pictured left to right: Paulette Booker, Octavia Payne, Ursula Payne, Carl Booker and James Burley, Jr., in Ursula Payne's New Castle home. Octavia Payne is a retired educator and co-founder of the Diamond Girls youth program in New Castle. Her daughter Ursula is the chairperson of the Department of Dance and director of the Frederick Douglass Institute at Slippery Rock University. Paulette and Carl Booker are close relatives of the Paynes, and James Burley Jr. is a friend and former classmate of Ursula Payne.
Octavia Payne: "I'm from North Carolina and I met my husband at Knoxville College. We were married and we came here to New Castle in 1970. New Castle was my husband's home. I had my baby with me, and that was Ursula. And we came here, we taught school here for 35 years. We had an uncle, Big Jim, who, when we first moved here, we stayed with him. And I remember how rusty the water was because he had well water. We drank it; it was good water! He had big picnics out there, a garden — he had a green thumb. He had a lot of property out there, he liked to cook, and his water was good."
Paulette Booker: "Back then, all our family outings was at his house. I came from Pensacola, Fla. I came up here in January of 1963. This is my father's home, and I've been here ever since. When we were in Florida, we were always surrounded by family and having family get-togethers and family fun, and then when we came here, it was the same thing, so the transition wasn't as bad. And we grew up fishing, too."
Ursula Payne: "My stories about water are kind of folkloric tales. I don't want to say folklore because [my stories] are true, but I always remember the story of my grandfather's brother … who drowned in the Shenango River. I remember family telling stories about that. It was always, 'That's why you don't go by the river or go swimming in the Shenango River because you can get caught up in the currents.' So I remember some of those tragic stories. And the other thing about water I remember is my father, he used to fish all the time. My father and my Uncle Lenny."
James Burley Jr.: "[I was] born and raised in New Castle, my whole life. I started going fishing, and that's the main thing I do with water. I'd walk the whole Neshannock Creek. ...We were pulling in all kinds of fish at the time and then all of a sudden they made some regulations and they blocked it off, so we weren't allowed to go for a while. So then we started going to the Shenango River and started doing really good in the Shenango River, then all of a sudden they started blocking, fencing that off, so we couldn't go. There were warnings: Don't eat the fish because of all the mercury. We did it for the fun anyway; we didn't really care about eating them.
Carl Booker: "The water wasn't safe. Most of [the pollution] came from [the factories] up in the Sharon area, but they never update nothing. They put [the warnings] out what, four years ago? They haven't updated it. They say it's still not good, though. I was born and raised here. I don't do nothing 'round the water 'round here [now], but when I was younger we used to swim in it. I lived on the tracks. The West Side, that's what we called it … where the bypass is now."
Octavia Payne: "There was a whole development down there. Not one house down there now. It's highway. They wiped out a whole community down there — but the river's still there."
Njaimeh Njie, the author and photographer, is a multimedia producer and founder of the nonfiction storytelling company Eleven Stanley Productions. Njie was named the 2018 Emerging Artist of the Year by the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts, and her work has been featured in outlets including CityLab, HuffPost Black Voices, and the Carnegie Museum of Art Storyboard blog. More information can be found at njaimehnjie.com.
The manufacturing plant responsible for PFAS-coated fast food packaging pumps out loads of a banned ozone-depleting compound along with "forever chemicals."
"We already know enough about the harm being caused by these very persistent substances to take action to stop all non-essential uses and to limit exposure from legacy contamination."
The chemicals, linked to health problems including cancer and thyroid disease, have contaminated drinking water in Pittsburgh communities like Coraopolis and McKeesport.