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‘That’s Vinegar’: The Ohio River’s History of Contamination and Progress Made

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Guy Riefler, chair of Ohio University’s Russ College of Civil Engineering, shows how the water coming from a creek has a high level of acidity. Photo: Curren Sheldon/100 Days in Appalachia

In 1958, researchers from the University of Louisville and the Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission gathered at a lock on the Monongahela River for routine collecting, counting and comparing of fish species. 

At the time, the best way to accomplish this was what’s called lock chamber sampling, or filling a 350-by-56-foot lock with river water, injecting it with cyanide and waiting for the dead fish to float to the top. Archaic, but effective.

On this particular day, researchers opened the chamber to find one fish inside.

One fish.

It shouldn’t have been surprising, said Jerry Schulte, a biologist who managed the source water protection and emergency response team for the Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission [ORSANCO] for more than two decades. After all, the steel companies that dotted the region’s riverbanks were dumping their contaminated water right into the rivers. The waterways were so acidic that the steel-hulled boats meant to last 20 years rusted out in three and the pH routinely measured less than 4.

“That’s vinegar,” Schulte said. “It was so polluted, you could see it, smell it and taste it.”

By the time Schulte began monitoring fish species in the 1990s, thanks to environmental and industrial regulations like the Clean Water Act, the Ohio River and its major tributaries, including the Mon, had changed. They no longer looked or smelled like open sewers. Mayflies hatched on their surfaces; many pollution-intolerant aquatic species returned; and lock chamber sampling — done without cyanide — could yield hundreds, even thousands, of fish. 

“It’s a functioning ecosystem now,” Schulte said.

Functioning doesn’t mean perfect, however. As recently as 2015, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency named the Ohio River one of the country’s most polluted. Industrial contaminants, including the “forever chemical” perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), have been detected on long stretches of the river and toxic algal blooms erupt when conditions are just right. Still, most of the time, the majority of the river’s 981 miles are ripe for recreation and fit for drinking after proper treatment. 

The same can’t always be said for the greater Ohio River watershed.

Iron created by acid mine drainage floats in creek water. Photo: Curren Sheldon/100 Days in Appalachia

The Ohio River drainage basin is an interconnected web of small rivers and creeks covering 205,000 square miles of largely rural, Appalachian landscape and is home to 25 million people, many of whom are among the country’s poorest.

In parts of the basin, acid mine drainage turns creeks the color of Orange Crush, agricultural runoff chokes streams with nutrients, and combined sewage and stormwater pipe overflows fill waterways with dangerous bacteria. 

Watershed pollution in Appalachia, much of which has been caused by coal mining, is an ongoing environmental hazard that mimics the threat steel once posed to big cities on the Ohio. It threatens aquatic life, endangers people taking part in river recreation and — perhaps most critically — creates water unfit for human consumption.

It Started With a Slurry

BarbiAnn Maynard stands on the porch of her home in Huntleyville, Kentucky, (population 188) and points across the two-lane road, where three houses perch on a tree-speckled mountainside.

“That one — dementia. This one — dementia. That one over there — dementia. My dad — dementia,” she said. “You can’t tell me that’s not because of the water.”

On Oct. 11, 2000, 300 million gallons of coal slurry broke through a reservoir in Martin County, Kentucky, flooding the abandoned mine shafts below and rushing out into the waters of Wolf Creek and Coldwater Fork.

For the past 19 years, BarbiAnn Maynard has been fighting to fix contaminated water in Martin County, Kentucky. The issues began in 2000 when a coal slurry broke through an abandoned mine shaft and dumped sludge into tributaries of the Tug Fork River. Photo: Curren Sheldon/100 Days in Appalachia

The black custard coated and killed everything in its path as it slithered for hundreds of miles and shifted into adjoining waterways, including the Tug Fork, Big Sandy and Ohio
rivers. In Martin County, sludge crept into yards and across roads, creating pools 5 feet deep.

“It was like mud pie,” Maynard said, “only instead of mud and water, it was mud and oil.”

The slurry was an unprecedented disaster — 30 times larger than the Exxon Valdez oil spill more than a decade earlier. It wiped out aquatic life in the creeks and cut off drinking water to nearly 30,000 people.

When water service resumed later that year, bills came stamped with a warning: If you have a severely compromised immune system, have an infant, are pregnant, or are elderly, you may be at increased risk and should seek advice from your health care providers about drinking this water.

The first time Maynard received that warning, she was 24 years old and pregnant with her daughter. Nineteen years later, the water in Martin County still comes with warnings. 

But the roots of the county’s water issues and the fixes are complicated.

The water issues start at the treatment plant, where water pulled from the Tug Fork River is disinfected. Multiple municipal tests over the years show water in Martin County exceeds the maximum contaminant level for trihalomethane and haloacetic acid, both byproducts of the water’s treatment and both carcinogenic. Maynard believes her late mother’s multiple bouts with cancer are a direct result. But without such treatment to the water, customers could be exposed to harmful bacteria and whatever residual effects of the coal slurry are still present in the waterway. 

It’s not a good choice, said Paul Ziemkiewicz, director of the West Virginia Water Research Institute at West Virginia University. Water authorities need to use limited amounts of chemicals to avoid bacteria-causing illness, but too much of those chemicals could put their residents at risk for cancer.

The other problem occurs when water leaves the plant and heads toward homes. Like much of eastern Kentucky and southern West Virginia, Martin County has an aging infrastructure problem and little money to fix it. In West Virginia, underfunded treatment plants and straight-line pipes that combine sewage and stormwater have allowed raw sewage to collect in creeks, creating a public health crisis by serving as a breeding ground for bacteria. 

In Martin County, the problem is broken pipes. Experts estimate nearly 70% of drinking water is lost while contaminants in the soil and groundwater are allowed to leach into the system. In coal country, Maynard said, who knows what gets in.

Representatives from the Martin County Water District did not return a phone call seeking comment but have said in the past that they are changing the chlorination process to avoid contamination issues and are looking for funds to fix broken water lines.

For residents in Martin County, turning on the tap is always a surprise. Some days, it’s cloudy and smells so strongly of chlorine that it burns the eyes. Other days, water is the color of weak tea and sediment settles in toilet bowls and shower drains.  

The result, Maynard claims, is that no one in Martin County trusts or drinks the water. Maynard drives 45 minutes to a spring at the Mingo-Logan county line in West Virginia to fill containers with fresh water to drink. She uses antibacterial hand soap as body wash in the shower and cleans her hands with disinfectant wipes rather than running them under the tap.

BarbiAnn Maynard drives 45 minutes from her home in Martin County, Kentucky, to a spring at the Mingo-Logan county line in West Virginia to fill containers with fresh water. Like most of her neighbors, Maynard doesn’t trust the water in Martin County, which routinely exceeds maximum levels of contaminants, including the carcinogen trihalomethane. Photo: Curren Sheldon/100 Days in Appalachia

She’d like nothing more than to follow her now-grown daughters out of the county and leave the water issues behind, but her land along the Tug Fork in Huntleyville has been in the family for five generations and she is her ill father’s caretaker. So she came up with another option.

“I figured I could lay down and die or I could fight,” Maynard said. “And I’m a fighter.”

She’s become the face of the Martin County water crisis, both locally and in media outlets as far away as France and Japan. She has a vast and growing collection of water-related public documents, religiously attends municipal meetings and writes letters to the public service commission. Every few months, she drives across the state line to a Tennessee grocery store to pick up pallets of bottled water, which she then distributes to county residents. 

But no amount of anger or advocacy can fix the underlying issue plaguing Martin County and others like it: inadequate funds. According to Martin County officials, it will take at least $10 million to address the water issues there. 

As of Sept. 5, the county had received two grants — one from an abandoned mine fund and another from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers — to improve water supply infrastructure and service. Together, the grants totaled $4 million.

Even with the money, Maynard doesn’t trust that the most pressing problems will be addressed. In 2018, several members of the county’s water board quit after the state attorney general opened an investigation into mismanagement. After an 11-month investigation, the grand jury returned no charges.

“There’s a lot of greed and corruption,” Maynard maintained. “And they haven’t used common sense.”

But even in areas of the river basin where sensical solutions to water pollution have been developed and instituted, the results are still subject to imminent financial threat. 

The Great Irony

A creek (left) contaminated with acid mine drainage flows past a local rural road while the Carbondale doser (right) works to neutralize some of the acidity before it reaches local streams. Photo: Curren Sheldon/100 Days in Appalachia

Just off Township Road 1 in the unincorporated community of Carbondale, Ohio, a constant stream of acidic water seeps and sputters out of the abandoned AS-14 mine complex.

Before 2004, that water washed across a field and the road before dumping into Hewett Fork, turning it tangerine. It was so laden with acidity that snow plows had to be called in to scrape the resulting iron off the asphalt, and fish kills became a regular occurrence where Hewett Fork flows into Raccoon Creek.

Today, the water from AS-14 instead flows into a tall green structure — known as the Carbondale doser — and turns a wheel, releasing pinches of powdery calcium oxide from the cylindrical tower above. The calcium oxide neutralizes the acid in the water as it makes its way through a concrete channel and into Hewett Fork. 

The upshot of the doser is a rehabilitated waterway. Hewett Fork no longer causes fish kills, and 90 miles of Raccoon Creek, which flows through southeastern Ohio, are now safe for recreation.

This process for remediating acid mine drainage in creeks isn’t a perfect one, said Jen Bowman, the director of environmental programs for Ohio University’s Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs, which worked with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources [ODNR] on the doser project. It takes time for the calcium oxide to dissolve, so a section of Hewett Fork near the doser still runs rusty and lifeless before giving way to clean water.

Jen Bowman, the director of environmental programs for Ohio University’s Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs, has been working on acid mine drainage abatement since her days as a graduate student. Photo: Curren Sheldon/100 Days in Appalachia

And the doser is expensive. It cost ODNR nearly $400,000 to install, and the tower must be refilled with calcium oxide every six to eight weeks at a rate of about $40,000 per year, according to Bowman. The money comes from the Abandoned Mine Land Reclamation program.

There are other, cheaper ways to prevent abandoned coal mines from harming waterways, and in southeastern Ohio — where a loose loop of 11 villages and unincorporated communities is collectively known as the “Little Cities of Black Diamonds” — they’ve tried many of them. 

A mine near Lake Hope State Park, fewer than 20 miles west of Athens, was sealed off nearly 20 years ago. Doing so prevents pollution from entering the water and creates a prime area for camping and water recreation. Closer to Athens, Bowman and her team at Ohio University [OU] have created a steel slag leach bed system, which uses an alkaline byproduct of steel production to neutralize acidic water. 

However, the funding for all of these projects could be in jeopardy.

Since 1977, the federal Abandoned Mine Land Reclamation Program has doled out money to states in order to soothe the scars of coal mining. But the money for that program is collected from a fee on coal companies that is set to expire in 2021. 

This is the great irony of coal: the restoration of abandoned mines hinges on the perpetuation of coal mining.

With the abandoned mine land fund and its resulting projects in peril, university research institutes like Bowman’s have been joining environmental nonprofits in entrepreneurial efforts to ensure that remediation continues. 

In Ohio, researchers at OU’s Russ College Department of Civil Engineering and experts at the nonprofit Rural Action have launched a pilot program that uses acid mine drainage pollution to create paint pigments. 

Researchers from Ohio University’s engineering school and experts from the nonprofit Rural Action have designed a pilot program that used oxidized iron from acid mine drainage to develop paint pigments. The pigments produced from acid mine drainage can be yellow, orange, red, brown, black and even shades of violet. Photo: Curren Sheldon/100 Days in Appalachia

In West Virginia, Ziemkiewicz and his team at the West Virginia Water Research Institute are extracting rare earth elements from acid mine drainage. These elements, which until now have largely been imported from China, are used in dozens of technological products, including cell phones, computers and televisions.

The hope is that these initiatives will eventually generate enough money to cover the remediation and abatement projects that have restored waterways.

“Maybe it gets us out of that vicious cycle of mining coal to fix the legacy of coal mining,” Bowman said.

But even if that cycle can be broken, even if paint pigments and rare earth elements turn a profit and remediation projects are funded in perpetuity, that doesn’t fix the Ohio River drainage basin. 

Because while coal is a dire problem, it is just one of many problems.

Common Sense and a Willingness To Do the Right Thing

Every September since 2007, open-water swimmers have leapt off the Serpentine Wall at Cincinnati’s Sawyer Point and into the Ohio River. Their goal is to swim the 450 meters to the Kentucky shore and back again.

This year, it didn’t happen. Days before the race was to commence, ORSANCO received reports of algae in the water, and the Kentucky Department for Public Health issued a harmful algae bloom advisory, effectively shutting down river recreation.

Scientists tested samples of water, like this one scooped near Cincinnati on Sept. 19, and found the presence of Microcystis in the algae, which can produce neurotoxins. Photo: Jerry G. Schulte/For 100 Days in Appalachia

It was the second bloom in the month of September. The first erupted near Huntington, West Virginia, and grew 50 miles long before dissipating, according to Youngstrom.  

The blooms are a result of rains that wash fertilizer off farmland and into nearby creeks. Those nutrients eventually make their way to the Ohio River, where algae feed on them. That, by itself, wouldn’t be such a problem. But long periods without rain cause river flow to slow, allowing sediment to drop out of the water and sunlight to come in, creating the perfect conditions for rapid algae growth.

“Prior to 2015, everyone thought algae blooms were a lake problem,” said Greg Youngstrom, an environmental scientist and harmful algae bloom expert at ORSANCO. 

That summer, more than 700 square miles of toxic algae grew on the Ohio River in West Virginia and Ohio. River recreation ceased and, as blooms made their way into drinking water intakes, several companies had to switch to alternate water sources. 

According to Youngstrom, the increasing frequency of algae blooms is related to the extreme weather conditions brought about by climate change. More intense rainfall followed by long, drought-like stretches are just what algae need to thrive. 

There are simple ways to help curb the problem. In Ohio, Bowman is on a mission to create a 50-foot buffer at the edge of area waterways — basically a barrier of untamed grasses, shrubs and trees that would prevent erosion and provide shade from sunlight. 

It’s a slow process. In rural areas, farmers aren’t particularly interested in giving 50 feet of land that could be used for planting. Around Athens, residents have become accustomed to neatly manicured riverfront property and aren’t keen to let it go uncut.

“A lot of it is just behavioral change,” Bowman said.

Ziemkiewicz found that behavioral change was also the solution to a 2008 crisis in the Morgantown, West Virginia, area. That fall, salinity in the Monongahela River spiked, causing problems for public water supplies and eventually leading to a fish kill on Dunkard Creek.

Government and industry argued over responsibility — “Pennsylvania blamed West Virginia, West Virginia blamed Pennsylvania; coal companies blamed oil and gas, oil and gas blamed coal companies,” Ziemkiewicz said. He and West Virginia Water Research Institute Assistant Director Melissa O’Neal developed a network of watershed groups willing to monitor the total dissolved solids that were causing the rising salinity.

Algae on the Ohio River near California, Kentucky, on Oct. 7. It was later identified as Microcystis, the genus of cyanobacteria that causes harmful algal blooms. Photo: Christopher N. Lorentz/For 100 Days in Appalachia

Their findings showed that while the source of total dissolved solids was mine water, the salinity wasn’t actually the mine’s fault. The weather was especially dry that season, resulting in low flows. They developed a model that showed coal companies how many total dissolved solids could be safely released based on river flow.

“With Melissa’s data, a spreadsheet model, some common sense and the willingness of industry to do the right thing, we solved it,” Ziemkiewicz said.

It’s a lesson he tries to impress upon fellow researchers and scientists because he believes if true progress is to be made in the fight for clean water, it will require an abundance of data and a lack of political agenda, especially as burgeoning industries bring about new water challenges.

“We need to be fair arbiters,” Ziemkiewicz said. “If we just sit in our ivory towers and write journal articles and discuss whether the world is moving in the direction we think it should, we aren’t fixing the problem.”

April Johnston, a freelance writer for 100 Days in Appalachia, authored this story. She can be reached at aljohnston14@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.

Good River

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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What the Petrochemical Buildout along the Ohio River Means for Regional Communities and Beyond

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Illustration of the R.E. Burger power plant by David Wilson/Belt Magazine

The R.E. Burger coal-fired power plant’s final day ended, appropriately enough, in a cloud of black smoke and dust. From 1944 to 2011, the plant generated power, fumes and ash in the Ohio River Valley. It was one of dozens of coal and steel plants dotting the banks of the river, which for years has ranked among the nation’s most heavily polluted. Then, on July 29, 2016, following a series of detonations that echoed across the Ohio, the boiler house at the base of the smokestack crumpled amid flickers of flame. The 854-foot-tall tower toppled sideways, struck ground and sent up puffs of dirt and brick. In footage posted online, the noise is drowned out by the sound of whooping and applause from thousands of people who’d gathered in lawn chairs along the riverbanks to watch.

The demolition of the R.E. Burger plant is symbolic of one of the most significant energy transitions in U.S. history. Two out of every five power plants that burned coal to make electricity in 2010 were shut down by 2018, largely replaced by natural gas power plants — the result of a decade-long fracking rush. Few places have been quite as dramatically impacted as the northern Ohio River Valley, where shale well pads now lace the backroads of Appalachia’s former coal towns. Twenty-nine new gas-fired power plants are planned or under construction in Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia alone.

Historically, coal and steel marched hand in hand — coal powered the steel mills that built the Rust Belt. Now, with natural gas, industry can make a different kind of raw material, one that drillers and the International Energy Agency say represents the future of global demand for oil and gas: plastics.

The vast majority of petrochemical production in the United States has always taken place along the Gulf Coast. But, drawn by low-priced shale gas from fracking in Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia, the petrochemical industry is increasingly eyeing the Ohio River Valley as a manufacturing corridor.

Oil giants are banking on plastics and petrochemicals to keep the fossil fuel industry expanding amid rising concern over climate change. “Unlike refining, and ultimately unlike oil, which will see a moment when the growth will stop, we actually don’t anticipate that with petrochemicals,” Andrew Brown, upstream director for Royal Dutch Shell, told the San Antonio Express-News last year. Industry analysts have projected the region could support as many as seven additional plants on a similar scale. The American Chemistry Council has tallied $36 billion in potential investment that could be tied to an Ohio River Valley petrochemical and plastic manufacturing industry.

Illustration of Shell’s ethane cracker plant by David Wilson/Belt Magazine

Projects currently on the drawing board would unleash a flood of newly manufactured plastic from the region, using raw materials from fracked shale gas wells. Shell’s $6 billion ethane cracker in Potter Township in Beaver County, Pa., is projected to create roughly 3.5 billion pounds of polyethylene pellets each year. A similar volume is expected from a second plant proposed just over an hour’s drive south in Dilles Bottom, Ohio — to be built on the site of the razed R.E. Burger coal-fired power plant.


Green-lighting petrochemical projects along the Ohio River could bring new industrial vitality to a region that’s been hard hit by the slow decline of American coal and steel. It could also bring a host of issues. Shell’s cracker will be permitted to pump out 522 tons of volatile organic compounds into the air — nearly double the amount that the state’s current largest source, U.S. Steel’s Clairton Coke Works, produced in 2014 (the most recent year available). State permits also allow Shell to produce 2.25 million tons of carbon dioxide. That means this one plant, with its 600 jobs, will wield a carbon footprint one-third the size of Pittsburgh (population 301,000).

Plastic made on the banks of the Ohio is likely to reach the farthest corners of the globe. Shale Crescent USA, an industry group, projects that half of the plastic made on the Ohio would be shipped to Asia for use there. Only 9% of the plastic ever made has been recycled, with the vast majority of the rest winding up in landfills or oceans.

On a hillside overlooking Shell’s petrochemical plant in Monaca, Pa., new houses are going up in a subdevelopment tucked behind a shopping mall. “Like the view?” a sign posted by builder Ryan Homes reads. “Stop by our model home to find out how it can be yours!” From the cul-de-sac, you can watch Shell build its ethane cracker in the valley. Three dozen towering cranes, including one of the world’s tallest, are assisting in assembling the plant. The cracker’s components, like a 285-foot-tall quench tower, are often so massive that they wouldn’t fit on roads and had to be shipped in by barge.

Shell’s plant hasn’t yet started pumping out plastics. It’s expected to be fully operational in the early 2020s. The cracker will heat ethane — a natural gas liquid abundant in the region’s shale wells — at temperatures so high that the molecule cracks and becomes ethylene. Ethylene can be transformed into polyethylene, the plastic familiar to consumers from food packaging, milk jugs and garden furniture.

Old-timers will tell you the air around Pittsburgh used to be so thick with sooty particles that city workers would change into new shirts at lunch. These days, the skies look much clearer. That doesn’t mean all of the dangers have dissipated. “What comes out of a well pad, what comes out of a compressor station, what comes out of an ethane cracker plant are pretty similar,” Dr. Ned Ketyer said at a community forum in St. Clairsville, Ohio. Ketyer is a pediatrician who serves on the board of Physicians for Social Responsibility Pennsylvania.

“It’s important to note that almost all of these are invisible,” including the chemical fumes and tiny particulate matter from gas and plastics operations, Ketyer said. “You can’t see it, but it’s so small that it gets into the deepest part of the lungs and can get absorbed into the bloodstream.”

At the forum organized by Concerned Ohio River Residents, an environmental group, Ketyer played video footage recorded in August by environmental nonprofit Earthworks with a special FLIR camera at a compressor station and at two different drilling sites. “Everything looks nice and peaceful, nice and clean, nothing going on here,” he said. But in the FLIR camera footage, “you can see the air filling up with emissions.”

The Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project took the data from Shell’s air pollution permits and, assuming that the plant would actually pump out half as much as its permits allowed, ran the numbers on how high emissions exposure would reach, Ketyer said. The report found that a cancer treatment center next to the subdevelopment would expose those breathing outside to an “extreme” level of five hazardous air pollutants. The mall itself would see emissions four-and-a-half times higher than the cancer center.

Studies have found that those fumes can make people ill. “We’ve known for decades that certain pollution causes certain symptoms,” said Ketyer, listing as examples headaches, shortness of breath, impaired thinking and changes in blood pressure. “So right here, Beaver Valley Mall, this is 1 mile directly downwind from the cracker plant,” he continued. “It’s going to be inhospitable, if not uninhabitable, in my opinion.”


About an hour east, Donora, Pa., is home to a historical society and museum emblazoned with the words: “Clean Air Started Here.” There is also a striking number of empty buildings. About 4,600 people call Donora home, according to census data, roughly a third as many as a century ago. More than 8,000 people used to work at the steelworks here, owned by American Steel and Wire Co., a U.S. Steel subsidiary. Roughly half worked at the plant’s zinc works, used to galvanize wire, nails and other steel products.

The air pollution was anything but invisible back then — and it was never darker than a series of fall days in 1948. Just before Halloween, a thick cloud of smog, known as the “Donora death fog,” settled over the town. More than 20 people died within days of respiratory and other problems and more than 6,000 people became ill.

Today, most of the survivors of the smog have passed away, according to Brian Charlton, curator of the Donora Historical Society, but in 2009, filmmakers interviewed 25 people who’d been there. The survivors described how grit and ash from the plant routinely darkened the skies over the town but then, for several days straight, the smoke all seemed to stay trapped in the town. “I worked at the telephone office,” Alice Uhriniak told the filmmakers. “We always had smoke in Donora, from the mills and everything, and it was dark. But when I got into the office, and the girls that had worked nighttime, they said, ‘Hurry up, get your set on, everybody’s dying.’”

Illustration of a firefighter (circa 1940s) by David Wilson/Belt Magazine

Firefighters went through town with oxygen tanks and the town’s pharmacy scrambled to supply cough medications, while a community center became an improvised morgue. “I told ‘em the best thing they could do at that particular time was to get out of town,” Dr. William Rongaus, a Donora physician, told the documentarians. “I had a good idea that just the poisonous gases were coming out of the Donora Zinc Works.”

Workers inside the plant who spent too much time breathing high levels of smoke dubbed their symptoms the “zinc shakes,” Charlton explained. “They would say, well you couldn’t take that environment for more than two or three hours, but their attitude was such that, ‘But we could defeat that’…It is this very tough attitude; we can take anything.” According to later investigations, the smoke, which carried hydrogen fluoride, sulfur compounds and carbon monoxide, could cause health problems if you inhaled too much at a time.

The week of the “Donora death fog,” an unusually prolonged weather pattern left the fumes trapped in the Monongahela River Valley. There was a temperature inversion, Charlton said. “That’s the thing that really cause[d] the deaths.”

It’s an incident that seems burned in the memories of environmentalists. Because the Ohio River Valley is also prone to inversion events, they say, there’s a risk that the less visible pollution from ethane crackers could accumulate in the air. Residents often ask about inversions, too, “because that is their daily experience, they’re aware of what it feels like to be in that situation,” said Megan Hunter, an attorney with Fair Shake Environmental Legal Services.

In January, Fair Shake challenged a state air permit for the cracker proposed at the old R.E. Burger site, arguing that the state failed to properly account for the risks of air inversions. “It’s right there in the valley,” she added, referring to the proposed cracker plant and to the town of Moundsville, West Virginia, which is directly across the Ohio River. “They’re both low and on the river itself.”


Officials in the Trump administration say that promoting new petrochemical and plastics projects in the Ohio River Valley can help the shale gas industry by expanding the market for “natural gas liquids,” which can command far higher prices than the methane gas that’s sold to burn for heat and electricity. “What we need to do is increase the demand for the natural gas and especially the wet portion of the natural gas that we’re producing in this region,” Steven Winberg, assistant secretary at the U.S. Department of Energy, said at a petrochemical industry conference hosted by the West Virginia Manufacturers Association in April. “And that’s going to be done through the domestic ethane crackers and the strong export market that we see for the products coming out of these crackers, for the plastics and resin.”

That plan would tie the Ohio River Valley’s economic fate to the natural gas industry, which — unlike coal and steel — has become notorious for its rapid booms and busts. Right now, counties in the shale “sweet spots” around the Ohio river hum with trucks on the highways, green compressor stations pumping fracked gas through pipelines, and the stream of deliveries to Shell’s cracker. Reports produced by industry groups predict plastics and petrochemical projects could support 101,000 jobs in Appalachia (though a closer look shows that three-quarters of those potential jobs fall into the “indirect” and “induced” categories, not jobs at the new plants).

But shale drilling’s economic foundation could prove to be as brittle as the shale itself. Over the past decade, while horizontal drilling and fracking have unleashed enormous volumes of natural gas and the natural gas liquids prized by plastics manufacturers, drillers have frequently found themselves deep in debt, as the supply glut drove prices low. A growing amount of that debt is expected to come due soon, analysts say. The Wall Street Journal reported in August that, from July to December, drillers will have to pay off $9 billion in debt, and that number will rise to $137 billion between 2020 and 2022. That spells risk for companies counting on a supply glut and low prices to continue for decades into the future.

And then there are the externalized costs. Matt Mehalik, executive director of the Breathe Project, said his Pittsburgh-based organization tallied projected health costs from the construction of three cracker plants in the Ohio River Valley, estimating from $120 million to $272 million a year nationwide. Over the 30-year lives of the plants, Mehalik projected, those health costs would reach $3.6 to $8.1 billion, including nearly $1 billion in Allegheny County, where Pittsburgh is located, and $1.4 billion in Beaver County, where the Shell plant is being built.

The economics left some concerned that history could repeat itself. “Look what coal left this area. Not very much,” said Steven Zann, of Wheeling, West Virginia, who formerly worked at an aluminum plant. Zann was skeptical about the claim that the plastics industry could fill the shoes that steel left empty, in terms of jobs. “That’s why they’re always exaggerating the amount of employment it will create,” he said. “It’s not really going to be that. It’s not going to be the new steel.”

The Donora steelworks employed 8,000 workers at its height and supported virtually an entire town of 14,000. After construction ends, the Shell cracker will employ 600 in Monaca, a town of 5,500 — and that number includes engineers and other highly skilled workers expected to come from outside Monaca.


Driving Route 7 along the Ohio River near Bev Reed’s hometown brings you past power plants and a coal stockpile so tall that locals call it Murray’s mountain, after Murray Energy’s founder Bob Murray. Head north, and Route 7 will bring you just shy of Little Blue Run, the largest coal ash impoundment in the country, which spans the West Virginia/Pennsylvania border. Drive south, and you’ll pass the old R.E. Burger site, where land is being cleared to pave the way for the cracker, and past the expanding Blue Racer Natrium complex, where shale gas is separated from the liquids prized by the plastics industry.

In June, Pittsburgh’s mayor announced that the Steel City would commit to getting 100% of its power from renewable energy within 16 years. Environmental groups warn that pursuing a petrochemical buildout in the surrounding region would undo the climate benefits from that shift.

Some of those born and raised in the Ohio River Valley, like Reed, have begun organizing to fight the arrival of the petrochemical industry.

Grassroots organizations, like the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition and the recently formed People Over Petro coalition, say they’re working to prevent a “cancer valley” in Appalachia (in a reference to the notorious “cancer alley” in Louisiana). They’ve held protests outside of industry conferences, organized meetings at public libraries and spoken on a bus tour of the valley organized by environmental groups earlier this year for reporters and policy-makers.

Reed’s family owns a bicycle shop in Bridgeport, Ohio, which opened in 1973. Up the hill from the shop, water flows from the ground around the clock, staining the concrete pavement an orange-red. “My whole life, it’s been like this,” said Reed, 27, who also works at the shop. She described it as acid mine discharge from coal mining. “It keeps flowing down, and the river is right over there.”

Plastic itself has climate impacts at each step from the gas well to disposal, whether it is incinerated, sent to a dump (where it can “off-gas” greenhouse gases if exposed to sunlight) or may even disrupt ocean food chains, vital to the ocean’s absorption of carbon, according to a report published in May by the Center for International Environmental Law. 

“We can’t deal with the plastic as it is,” said Reed, who started interning for Sierra Club after hearing about the industry’s plans for the valley, “so why would you want to make more rather than use what we already have or create more jobs in the recycling industry?”

The Ohio River Valley, like the rest of the United States, stands at a crossroads of energy and industry, facing decisions about whether to turn toward a future of renewable energy and a green jobs revolution or one of shale gas and plastics. Some might say there are clear skies ahead, regardless of direction, as the valley turns its back on coal and steel. But a question hangs in the air, thick as smog: Can the public here in the hills and valleys along the Ohio count on decision-makers to steer around the less-visible hazards as they chart a course forward?

Sharon Kelly, a freelance writer for Belt Magazine, authored this story. She can be reached at shrnkelly68@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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Good River

360 Degrees of the Cheat River: A Journey to Revitalization on an Ohio River Tributary

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The Cheat River runs north from the mountains of West Virginia into Pennsylvania where it eventually joins with other tributaries to form the Ohio. Photo: David Smith/100 Days in Appalachia

The Cheat River courses through one of the largest undammed watersheds in the eastern United States. The river forms from tributaries high in the Allegheny Mountains of eastern West Virginia and flows northward to meet with the Monongahela River just before crossing into southwestern Pennsylvania. From there, the Mon joins the Allegheny River to form the Ohio River. The Ohio River is a drinking water source for five million people, and 25 million people in Appalachia and the Midwest live within its watershed. 

The Cheat River has a storied history. Not so long ago, the river ran orange for miles at a time from acid mine drainage, but revitalization efforts have brought the waters back to life, both literally and figuratively. The once-dead river now supports an aquatic ecosystem that draws in anglers from around the region and world-class conditions that whitewater rafters, kayakers and squirt boaters enjoy.

How To: This 360-degree video is interactive. Click and drag your mouse, move your device or drag with your finger to explore the Cheat River views, both above and below the water’s surface.

This video was produced by Jeffrey Boggess, Ariel Cifala, Bijan Fandey, Shae McClain and Mark Schoenster, students in the West Virginia University Reed College of Media, under the direction of David Smith, teaching assistant professor in the Reed College and multimedia producer for 100 Days in Appalachia. Smith can be reached at clifton.smith@mail.wvu.edu.

Joel Wolpert assisted in shooting the underwater footage.

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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