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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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Ever Hear of a Nurdle? This New Form of Pollution Could be Coming to the Ohio River

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Jace Tunnell, founder of the Nurdle Patrol, holds a bottle of nurdles that litter the beach in Texas. These pellets are the building blocks of plastic products like water bottles, car parts and grocery bags. Photo: Courtesy of Jace Tunnell

When the petrochemical plant being built by Shell Chemical Appalachia in Beaver County, Pennsylvania, 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 as well— nurdles. 

First Sightings of Nurdles

Nurdles are tiny plastic pellets similar in size to a lentil produced at petrochemical plants. They’re the raw material of the plastics industry, the building blocks of everything from car parts to keyboards to grocery store bags.

Jace Tunnell is the reserve director at the Marine Science Institute at the University of Texas at Austin. Before last year, he had only heard of nurdles. 

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

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

Tunnell described it as unbelievable how many opaque pellets he saw on the beach. There were thousands, likely more.

“I was kind of in shock,” he said.

Creating Nurdle Patrol

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

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

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

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

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

More Plastics on the Way

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.

Construction of Shell’s $6 billion ethane cracker along the Ohio River in Beaver County, Pennsylvania, in June 2019. Photo: Reid Frazier/The Allegheny Front

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.

Nurdles along the shores of Galveston Bay in Texas, home to many petrochemical plants, which can inadvertently spill pellets. Photo: Courtesy of Jace Tunnell

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

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

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

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

“Yes, there are standards right now,” Jeffers said. “They’re just woefully out of date.”

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

A ‘Valuable’ Product

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.

Nurdle Patrol participant Parker Tunnell holds a nurdle she found in Texas. The Ohio Valley will be home to Shell’s ethane cracker, which will produce trillions of pellets annually. Photo: Courtesy of Jace Tunnell

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

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

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

Is the Ohio Valley Protected from Nurdle Pollution?

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.

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. Photo: Reid Frazier/The Allegheny Front

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I am extremely concerned about plastics and especially microplastics and nurdles,” said Randi Pokladnik, a representative of the Ohio Valley Environmental 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 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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On the Most Populated Ohio River Island, This Beekeeper Found a Way to Better Himself and His Community

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Dave Watson says once beekeeping is in your blood, “it’s hard to shake it.” He’s spent his life raising bees, but his plot on Wheeling Island has allowed him to expand on the practice, providing a small supplemental income while also serving as a therapy of sorts. Photo: Rebecca Kiger/100 Days in Appalachia

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.

“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.

Dave Watson holds one of the strawberries he grew in his plot on Wheeling Island. He says he didn’t start the garden to benefit the community, but he’s watched it make an impact. Photo: Rebecca Kiger/100 Days in Appalachia

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.

“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 rebeccakphoto@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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Fighting Pollution and Apathy on the Lower Ohio: It’s Not Easy Being a Southern Indiana Waterkeeper

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Jason Flickner points out features of the Ohio River from the fossil beds at the Falls of the Ohio State Park. Photo: Jeff Brooks-Gillies/Environmental Health News

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.

“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.

From the Outdoors to Door to Door

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.

‘A Conservation Warrior’

Jason Flickner talks with a group of youth missionaries on the Big Four Bridge over the Ohio River. Photo: 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.

Red State Struggles

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).

‘Something Will Come Through’ 

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 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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