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One Ohio River Town That’s Using Outdoor Recreation to Boost Its Economy

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

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

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

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

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

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

Carrie Ankrom, president of the Marietta Chamber of Commerce, says attracting tourists to events like the Sternwheel Festival is helping to revitalize the city’s downtown. Photo: Julie Grant/The Allegheny Front

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

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

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

Tourists on the Valley Gem Sternwheeler, facing the city of Marietta during the Ohio River Sternwheel Festival. Photo: Julie Grant/The Allegheny Front

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

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

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

Those rivers still define the city.

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

But Thomas noted there’s also a downside to living on the confluence of two rivers: “…That’s flooding obviously.”

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

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

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

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

Outdoor Adventure in Marietta

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

Ryan Smith and Hallie Taylor own the Marietta Adventure Company. Photo: Julie Grant/The Allegheny Front

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A Pittsburgh-area Test Case in Working Across Political Boundaries to Address Flooding

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Lisa Werder Brown, the executive director of the Watersheds of South Pittsburgh, showing a flood area at the Beechview-Seldom Seen Greenway in Pittsburgh. Photo: Terry Clark/PublicSource

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.

Saw Mill Run resident Anthony Wolkiewicz holds a photo that was taken of him with Fred Rogers of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood while working at WQED in 1977. Photo: Ryan Loew/PublicSource

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. 

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? 

Anthony Wolkiewicz photographed behind his house on Provost Road in the flood-prone Overbrook neighborhood of Pittsburgh. Photo: Ryan Loew/PublicSource

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.

Overbrook

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.

A map of the Saw Mill Run Watershed from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

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.”

Saw Mill Run

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. 

The Saw Mill Run Creek has become a flood risk for the Overbrook neighborhood of Pittsburgh. Photo: Ryan Loew/PublicSource

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.

Ana Flores, the Ohio River sewer shed coordinator for the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority. Photo: 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.

Ansonia Place is 5 acres of gravel and brush that could be turned into a floodplain off of Saw Mill Run Creek in Pittsburgh. Photo: Jay Manning/PublicSource

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.

Individual Actions

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.”

Data Ahead

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 oliver@publicsource.org 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.

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We Mapped out the Toxic Wastewater Discharges along the Ohio River. Here’s What We Learned.

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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.

Tim Guilfoile holds up a brown trout before releasing it along the Caney Fork in Kentucky. Photo: Courtesy of Susan Thrasher via Eye on Ohio

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. 

Source: The United States Environmental Protection Agency’s Enforcement and Compliance History online database, echo.epa.gov. 2017 figures above 0 shown.

But public records only tell part of the story. 

Permitting Process 

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. 

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. Photo: Leigh Taylor/Eye on Ohio

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.

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.”

Out of Compliance

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. 

Jeremy Shannon, from Southgate, Kentucky, walks near the Licking River Greenway and Trails next to the Licking River in Covington, Kentucky. The trail is across the river from IPSCO Tubulars in Wilder, Kentucky. According to public records, the facility had four Clean Water Act violations in the last six quarters. Photo: Leigh Taylor/Eye on Ohio

“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). 

Drainpipes along the Ohio River in Cincinnati, Ohio, near Smale Park. Photo: 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.”

For more information, see the NIH announcement or The Resource Page in its place.

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.

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Whose Job is it to Reduce Toxic Mercury in the Ohio River?

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Clifty Creek Station, a coal plant in Madison, Indiana, released 12 pounds of mercury into the Ohio River in 2017. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The brain-harming metal is discharged directly into the river and carried to it on air currents. Some argue authorities are doing too little to stop both routes of pollution.

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 states to make 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. 

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% of the mercury in the Ohio River main stem comes from wastewater discharges throughout the watershed, including tributaries.

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. 

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. Courtesy: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service – Midwest Region

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.”

Dangerous for Young Brains 

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.

Anglers at the Falls of the Ohio State Park. Courtesy: William Alden/flickr

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. 

A Ban that Lost its Teeth 

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. 

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: 

  • A representative from the Ohio EPA said the state agency had phased out all mixing zones for mercury and other bioaccumulative chemicals by 2009. 
  • The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection hasn’t removed mixing zones from any permits since the ORSANCO rule changed in 2015, but the state weighs renewal applications against ORSANCO and state water quality standards “and incorporate the more stringent limit if applicable,” said DEP press secretary Elizabeth Rementer. 
  • Indiana and Kentucky have similarly not yet phased out mixing zones completely. 
  • Illinois and West Virginia’s permitting agencies did not respond to requests for comments. 

Comparing ‘apples and oranges’

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.

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. Courtesy: ORSANCO

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.

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?”

State to State Inconsistency 

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 jeffgillies@gmail.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.

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