The Ohio River Valley, like the rest of the U.S., 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.
The R.E. Burger coal-fired power plant's final day ended, appropriately enough, in a cloud of black smoke and dust.
Illustration of a firefighter (circa 1940s) by David Wilson/Belt Magazine.<p>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.</p><p>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.</p><p>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.'"</p><p>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."</p><p>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.</p><p>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."</p><p>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.</p><p>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."</p>
Illustration of Shell's ethane cracker plant by David Wilson/Belt Magazine.<p>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 <a href="https://www.alleghenyfront.org/the-cautionary-tale-of-the-largest-coal-ash-waste-site-in-the-u-s/" target="_blank">largest coal ash impoundment</a> 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.</p><p>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.</p><p>Some of those born and raised in the Ohio River Valley, like Reed, have begun organizing to fight the arrival of the petrochemical industry.</p><p>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, <a href="https://breatheproject.org/news-and-events/" target="_blank">organized meetings</a> at public libraries and spoken on a bus tour of the valley organized by environmental groups earlier this year for reporters and policy-makers.</p><p>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."</p><p>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. </p><p>"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?"</p><p>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. </p><p>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?</p>