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Tracing Water, Memory and Change through Black Experiences Along and Near Route 65



The author overlooking the Ohio River on the North Side section of the Three Rivers Heritage Trail off of Route 65 in Pittsburgh. Photo: Njaimeh Njie

I live right above the Ohio River, off of a thoroughfare called the Ohio River Boulevard. It is one section of Route 65 – a 51-mile stretch of highway that travels from downtown Pittsburgh, northwest to the city of New Castle. The route spans three counties, three major rivers and several neighborhoods, boroughs, towns and tributaries as it makes its way through Western Pennsylvania’s industrial belt.

For me, living so close to the Ohio River evokes mixed feelings. The river trail that I like to walk along near my apartment is scenic, yet long stretches of it are flanked by the railroad, warehouses and industrial sites on either side. At home, I drink water from a filtered pitcher because of years of elevated lead levels in Pittsburgh’s water, and I regularly learn about new water threats in the region. I feel a constant push and pull between the things that are good for me and the things that can harm me, but I know my perspective is just one of many.

View of Route 65 from Ambridge, Pa. Photo: Njaimeh Njie

My work focuses on how history shapes the contemporary experiences of Black people in the industrial Midwest, and I’ve been thinking about water as a gateway to explore the deeper forces that shape the lives (and livelihoods) of Black people in this region. Black residents have traditionally lived close to the waterways — sometimes by choice, but often because of racist housing and land-use policies. Over the years, the proximity to water allowed access to transit, jobs, bathing, washing, fishing and leisure, but it also placed these communities at a disproportionate risk for flooding, pollution, disease and other issues caused by water. 

This history is encapsulated in the area that Route 65 spans. Like the rivers, it is a sort of connective tissue, linking people and places across the region. I set out to talk to Black residents living in communities along and near Route 65 about where they live and their experiences in these places, in the context of their connections to water. What you’ll read and see isn’t a definitive account of Black life in this area. Instead, it will present the stories of a few people, in a few places, and uses water as an entry point to the complex social, political and economic context of the region.

Olivia Bennett – Northview Heights, Pittsburgh

Olivia Bennett on Mt. Pleasant Road in Pittsburgh’s Northview Heights neighborhood. Bennett won the Nov. 5 election for the District 13 seat on the Allegheny County Council. Photo: Njaimeh Njie

“I describe [environmental justice] as being very mindful of what our actions each day, in our livelihoods, how that impacts our environment… But, I also look at it as how it impacts different communities in different ways. A lot of these pollut[ing] plants … they typically go into areas that are predominantly poor and predominantly communities of color. They try to build pipelines on sacred land. If you want the benefits from these plants to benefit the whole, then why are we not putting these plants in other places? Why are they specifically targeted to go to places that can’t typically advocate for themselves? 

“One of the things I’ve been fighting [in Northview Heights] is slow repairs. I mean, my courtyard always floods every time it rains. They’re supposed to be redoing it. They were supposed to be doing it for the last five years. So that type of thing, those types of fights. Just because we are living in public housing does not make us any less human. …How can we make sure that everybody’s coming along at the same rate to be able to fight against this? What creativity can we come along with to allow people to take ownership and be given the tools?”

Jamie Younger – Woods Run/Brighton Heights, Pittsburgh

Jamie Younger owns and operates Young Brothers Bar, pictured on the corner of Woods Run and McClure avenues, on the border of the Woods Run and Brighton Heights neighborhoods of Pittsburgh. Young Brothers sits about a mile from the county’s ALCOSAN water treatment facility. Photo: Njaimeh Njie

“Historically, Black people didn’t cross over Woods Run Avenue in my father’s time. At the time I went to [high school], when we came out of school at the end of the day, it seemed like the Black people walked right, and the white people walked left down this way. I never made that left, even to explore or venture. I bought a house up here after getting outta college and been here ever since. 

“When I first moved up here, when the wind blew, the smell was vicious. It would stop you in your tracks, and you’d be like, ‘Oh that ALCOSAN stinks.’ I don’t know what they’ve done over the years to mitigate that because it’s not as bad … except maybe after a lot of rain and then the wind blows. But I haven’t said that in a while.

Jamie Younger working inside Young Brothers Bar. Photo: Njaimeh Njie

“…It definitely keeps evolving geographically where Black folks are at. Black folks are finding it hard to live in the city. They’re finding it hard to find affordable housing within the city, and they’re going out to places like McKees Rocks … out into Beaver County, Ambridge. So it’s like, I don’t know — unless you own a home, I don’t know where you’re gonna go soon in the city, especially within the North Side of the city. It’s definitely becoming a challenge to find affordable, quality spaces to live within the city boundaries. It’s forever changing.”

Terry Stenhouse – Ambridge, Pa.

Terry Stenhouse (left) works with Lethera Harrison behind the counter of Annie Lee’s Southern Kitchen. Photo: Njaimeh Njie

“I’ve always been kinda leery about the quality of the drinking water. I went to school, I took my apprenticeship. I’ve been doing plumbing off and on since I was like 19. You know, working on the pipes and seeing cross sections of different pipes, and even when I was in the military and I purified water, I’ve always been kinda skeptical about the testing and the quality of the water. I really don’t have too much faith in the purification process, but once the water is purified and they run it through the piping system, in my eyes, it’s re-contaminated.

Annie Lee’s Southern Kitchen, owned by Terry Stenhouse, is pictured on the left side of Duss Avenue facing 16th Street in Ambridge, Pa. Photo: Njaimeh Njie

“You know, we all need water. It’s essential for life, so everyone’s connected to it … but at the same time, lately [for] something that’s supposed to be essential to life, [it] has been causing a lot of health problems. I mean we deal with water every day here at the restaurant. We cook with water, we have a filter on it. I just think we need to get better with the water all around. I don’t really think that it’s anyone’s fault to blame, because when these systems were put in, the information we have now wasn’t available. I don’t think it was done on purpose … it’s just being swept under the rug in terms of correcting the problem. So that’s what I think.”

Elizabeth “Betty” Asche Douglas – Rochester/Beaver Falls, Pa.

Elizabeth “Betty” Asche Douglas is an art-culture historian, retired professor, artist and jazz performer. Here she is pictured in her studio in Rochester, Pa. Photo: Njaimeh Njie

I was born in Rochester, Pa., not too far from where we’re sitting right now. I was born in 1930. Rochester, in the 19th century, was one of the most important towns around because it’s at the point where the Ohio River turns to go southwest. It gets to Rochester and the Beaver River runs into the Ohio at that point. And that’s why today Rochester has five major highways that go through it because of that juncture. It was also because the trains.

My father was an electronic technician. He started out as a radio man, repairing and making radios and so forth. How we got to Beaver Falls, I don’t know, but my first memories of life were in the first house we lived in in Beaver Falls, because it was on First Avenue. Across the street from First Avenue were the railroad tracks, and across from the railroad tracks was the river. So one of my earliest memories is of my father taking me by the hand and walking me down First Avenue, towards the train station there, and it was during the spring of the year of the great floods in Western Pennsylvania — ’37, I think. He said, ‘When the water gets up to there [she indicated the high-water level with her hand] we will have to leave.’ So my first childhood memory is watching the river in the springtime to see how high the water was getting because the houses on First Avenue would be the first ones to go over.

The present-day view of Elizabeth “Betty” Asche Douglas’ childhood street — First Avenue at 11th Street — in Beaver Falls, Pa. Photo: Njaimeh Njie

“The river was very important to Black boys especially because there were no swimming pools in Beaver Valley that would allow Black boys to swim in them. So every year there would be a Black kid that drowned in the river because they went down to the river to swim. I don’t think the people thought about pollution in those days. And I don’t know how garbage or waste or sewage was treated. When you’re a kid, you don’t think about that. The only thing you knew is you flushed the toilet and it goes away. Where it goes, you don’t think about.”

Tyrone Zeigler – Beaver Falls, Pa.

Tyrone Zeigler outside of the Beaver Falls wave pool. Zeigler is project manager of the Tigerland Wave Pool initiative, through the Beaver County Community Development Corporation. Zeigler is spearheading fundraising efforts to repair and re-open the pool. Photo: Njaimeh Njie

“[I’m] originally from New York, but I grew up about a mile down the road from the pool, a place called Koppel. Small town. [Growing up in] Koppel, Beaver Falls, New Brighton — there was always something to do. You could always find a pickup game when it came to basketball or baseball, Wiffle ball … I used to pass here all the time, drive past, ride my back past, because I used to ride my bike all the way from Koppel to New Brighton, just to go play basketball. So I used to ride by and see tons of people outside. The city had owned the property. Trying to maintain the city and the property became too much for them, so they turned the pool over to the YMCA. That just became too much, so they just decided to shut it down.

“I just turned my life around six years ago. So before all that it’s been my dream to re-open all of this, but I didn’t know how — and I knew people wasn’t gonna take a drug dealer serious. As I kept growing and maturing, I saw that people started respecting me a lot more. I seen that I was getting my reputation back. So I was riding by one day and … I just took a glance at it and a light bulb went off, and I said, ‘I believe that I can pull this off.’ And three years later, [we’re] super close.

“My vision is to get these kids off the street. My vision is to give them some type of structure. What about the kids that don’t play football, that don’t play baseball, that don’t play basketball? What about the kids that the parents don’t have the funds at all? So all they got is these drug dealers that’s their influences and the streets that’s their influences. Nobody’s really thinking about that. That was my biggest problem, being a follower. Now I’m a leader, and I’m trying to give them a blueprint so they don’t have to take that same path that I took. This is a start right here. I’m here. I’m not going anywhere either.”

Rev. William Hogans – New Castle, Pa.

“My father worked in the steel mills. So did my grandfather and so did my uncle. …[The Shenango] is the river that goes down through the middle of New Castle. So, because of the way that the [mills] would use the water, the river was extremely polluted. It was something you ignored. We just know that oftentimes we did not use the water. We never drank from the water. There was a place that we could swim. It was called El Rio Beach, which is funny, ’cause it’s … still considered to be in the middle of New Castle. 

“People — Black people especially — would go in the summertime, and we would run across and splash across. If the water was high enough, we’d ride the rapids down across the rocks in the creek. When the rain would come, the sewers would wash out and we’d play in the open sewers they were developing ’cause the water was clean, and it was flowing. Very dangerous. We didn’t realize it, but that’s what we did to keep cool in the summer.

“When I was 17, 18 years old, I left here because the economic plight was so bad. It was so hard to get a job. You know the steel mills, they fluctuated like the tide. Some days you could not not get a job. And then there were other times where they would do layoffs and shutdowns and cut back on production. By the time 1975 came around, when I was getting ready to graduate, there was nothing for me to do as a Black person that I knew of except for work in the grocery store or flip burgers.

Rev. William Hogans is pictured addressing the congregation at St. Luke during the kickoff gospel event for the church’s 175th anniversary weekend celebration in September 2019. Photo: Njaimeh Njie

“[Now] I’m assigned here, by our Bishop and my vision of God. I wanna do things that make health happen. I want to create a garden — two of them. There are natural springs in New Castle. I want to create a water treatment plant where we create our own bottled water. My hope for the role of the church is that we awaken people to the need for economic and spiritual and social empowerment. New Castle has declined. It’s shrunk in population base. The population is much older. That’s the challenge for the church: how to be a relevant agent of change for the better, where harmony and a healthy existence can occur. And my vision and hope is to create that.”

Payne-Booker-Burley families – New Castle, Pa.

The Neshannock Creek from Jefferson Avenue in New Castle. This location is a popular fishing destination that particularly draws activity during trout season in the spring. Photo: Njaimeh Njie

Octavia Payne: “I’m from North Carolina and I met my husband at Knoxville College. We were married and we came here to New Castle in 1970. New Castle was my husband’s home. I had my baby with me, and that was Ursula. And we came here, we taught school here for 35 years. We had an uncle, Big Jim, who, when we first moved here, we stayed with him. And I remember how rusty the water was because he had well water. We drank it; it was good water! He had big picnics out there, a garden — he had a green thumb. He had a lot of property out there, he liked to cook, and his water was good.”

Paulette Booker: “Back then, all our family outings was at his house. I came from Pensacola, Fla. I came up here in January of 1963. This is my father’s home, and I’ve been here ever since. When we were in Florida, we were always surrounded by family and having family get-togethers and family fun, and then when we came here, it was the same thing, so the transition wasn’t as bad. And we grew up fishing, too.”

Ursula Payne: “My stories about water are kind of folkloric tales. I don’t want to say folklore because [my stories] are true, but I always remember the story of my grandfather’s brother … who drowned in the Shenango River. I remember family telling stories about that. It was always, ‘That’s why you don’t go by the river or go swimming in the Shenango River because you can get caught up in the currents.’ So I remember some of those tragic stories. And the other thing about water I remember is my father, he used to fish all the time. My father and my Uncle Lenny.”

Pictured left to right: Paulette Booker, Octavia Payne, Ursula Payne, Carl Booker and James Burley, Jr., in Ursula Payne’s New Castle home. Octavia Payne is a retired educator and co-founder of the Diamond Girls youth program in New Castle. Her daughter Ursula is the chairperson of the Department of Dance and director of the Frederick Douglass Institute at Slippery Rock University. Paulette and Carl Booker are close relatives of the Paynes, and James Burley Jr. is a friend and former classmate of Ursula Payne. Photo: Njaimeh Njie

James Burley Jr.: “[I was] born and raised in New Castle, my whole life. I started going fishing, and that’s the main thing I do with water. I’d walk the whole Neshannock Creek. …We were pulling in all kinds of fish at the time and then all of a sudden they made some regulations and they blocked it off, so we weren’t allowed to go for a while. So then we started going to the Shenango River and started doing really good in the Shenango River, then all of a sudden they started blocking, fencing that off, so we couldn’t go. There were warnings: Don’t eat the fish because of all the mercury. We did it for the fun anyway; we didn’t really care about eating them.

Carl Booker: “The water wasn’t safe. Most of [the pollution] came from [the factories] up in the Sharon area, but they never update nothing. They put [the warnings] out what, four years ago? They haven’t updated it. They say it’s still not good, though. I was born and raised here. I don’t do nothing ’round the water ’round here [now], but when I was younger we used to swim in it. I lived on the tracks. The West Side, that’s what we called it … where the bypass is now.”

Octavia Payne: “There was a whole development down there. Not one house down there now. It’s highway. They wiped out a whole community down there — but the river’s still there.”

Njaimeh Njie, the author and photographer, is a multimedia producer and founder of the nonfiction storytelling company Eleven Stanley Productions. Njie was named the 2018 Emerging Artist of the Year by the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts, and her work has been featured in outlets including CityLab, HuffPost Black Voices, and the Carnegie Museum of Art Storyboard blog. More information can be found at

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

Good River

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



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

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

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On the Most Populated Ohio River Island, This Beekeeper Found a Way to Better Himself and His Community



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

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

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



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

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

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