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

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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 njaimehnjie.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

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

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

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

Mercury, which damages young brains, is flowing through industrial wastewater into the Ohio River. But the multi-state agency tasked with keeping the waterway clean hasn’t tightened controls on this pollution because it doesn’t have the authority to do so. 

While coal-fired power plants, chemical manufacturers and other facilities along the Ohio River are piping mercury directly into the river and there’s a permitting process to regulate that, the more significant source appears to be mercury blown into the atmosphere from smokestacks — both locally and across the globe from mining, energy and other industries. The mercury eventually settles on land and flows into water.

Figuring out how much of the toxic is coming from local industries or wind currents remains a challenge. The efforts so far to get a handle on it have spurred a patchwork of states to make rules that leave it up to consumers whether it’s worth the risk to eat their catch of the day. Fish are the most important source of exposure to humans. 

There’s a legal pathway for further ratcheting down mercury releases directly to the river, but the regulated industries say they already meet strict permit requirements and that path has hit diminishing returns. The industries say the problem lies in regional and global air emissions, but the legal levers there aren’t as easy to pull.

The tension between blaming airborne or wastewater sources is one factor among many that have played into controversial decisions around mercury over the past decade at the Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission [ORSANCO] —  an interstate water quality agency created in 1948 when the Ohio River was an open sewer for cities and factories and the Clean Water Act was still decades away. 

Environmental groups have looked to ORSANCO to tighten mercury standards on wastewater discharges. Industries arguing against tighter water standards say that atmospheric sources are a bigger problem, and much of the mercury in their wastewater is in a chemical form unlikely to move through the food chain into fish. ORSANCO has moved away from regulation, a path the agency said reflects the reality that it doesn’t have the same authority as its member states’ environmental agencies or the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency [EPA].

“ORSANCO doesn’t set rules for the states,” said Richard Harrison, the agency’s executive director. “The states set rules for the states. The states agree to work through ORSANCO as a collaborative body to work globally for the Ohio River basin.”

ORSANCO’s strengths, Harrison said, are monitoring and research. In 2016, commission staff launched a broad accounting of atmospheric and wastewater mercury sources across the Ohio River watershed. The report isn’t yet published, but a presentation delivered to an ORSANCO committee meeting in October 2019 said 11% of the mercury in the Ohio River main stem comes from wastewater discharges throughout the watershed, including tributaries.

An environmental scientist who has seen preliminary results said the study has flaws, though it’s not clear if those concerns will make it into the final version expected next month. 

While ORSANCO and state authorities are bogged down in disagreements over the relative threat of atmospheric and wastewater sources and whether states should work through ORSANCO to tighten regulations across the watershed, environmental advocates say the public is worse off for having to sort through the mess. 

A hybrid striped bass from the Wabash River. A 2010 study found five of 12 hybrid striped bass samples from the Ohio River tested higher than the EPA mercury limit. Courtesy: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service – Midwest Region

The ORSANCO fish advisory website lists seven species — sauger, black bass, freshwater drum, white bass, striped bass, hybrid striped bass and flathead catfish — that shouldn’t be eaten more than once a month from one 135-mile section of the Ohio River (from the John T. Myers Locks and Dam in southern Indiana to where the river empties into the Mississippi River) due to mercury concerns. Yet the agency’s most recent annual report says the “entire river is impaired for fish consumption due to dioxin and PCBs, but fully supports fish consumption for mercury.”

“What is that telling the public?” said Jason Flickner, director of the Indiana-based Lower Ohio River Waterkeeper. “Especially when it comes down to something as important as the ability to eat the fish and remain healthy.”

Dangerous for Young Brains 

For all that’s complicated about regulating mercury, one thing is clear: It’s a potent neurotoxin that is particularly dangerous to children. Mercury persists in the environment in a few different chemical forms. One of the less common forms, methylmercury, is the most threatening to people. Industries emit some methylmercury directly; the rest is created from other forms of mercury that are digested by microbes or undergo chemical reactions in soils and sediments.

“By now, about 12 different prospective studies have documented that children’s brain development is negatively affected by methylmercury,” said Phillippe Grandjean, an environmental health scientist and professor at Harvard’s School of Public Health. “The more, the worse.”

“The results also show that EPA’s current intake limit is too high to protect the brains of the next generation,” he said. The agency has announced plans to update its “reference dose.”

Studies have also linked mercury exposure to heart disease in adults. Children exposed in the womb or through breast milk can suffer impairments to memory, language and other cognitive functions.

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

People are mostly exposed to mercury through eating contaminated fish. It’s one of a group of pollutants that when consumed by animals can build up, or “bioaccumulate,” in their tissues.

“The larger and higher up in the food chain the fish are, the more mercury,” Grandjean said. “That sounds like sports fish, right?”

Mercury-contaminated fish are common in waterways across the country, and the Ohio River is no exception. Species including angler favorites like hybrid striped bass have been found in the Ohio River with mercury above the level considered safe by the EPA. A 2010 study found five of 12 hybrid striped bass samples tested higher than the EPA mercury limit. An ORSANCO fish contaminant database shows that 36 of the 307 samples collected since 2009 with a methylmercury record appear higher than the EPA limit. 

A Ban that Lost its Teeth 

Each state along the Ohio River issues fish consumption advisories that warn against eating too much fish from the river due to mercury and other chemicals. ORSANCO supports such work by collecting fish contamination data for member states and helping to keep the warnings consistent. 

ORSANCO’s work on advisories is an example of the interstate collaboration the agency was designed to support when it was created. Its actions are guided by the votes of a board of 27 commissioners appointed by the eight member states and the federal government. 

Tom FitzGerald, director of the Kentucky Resources Council, is one of the few ORSANCO commissioners from the nonprofit environmental advocacy world. He’s a federal commissioner appointed by the Obama administration in 2014. His term lasts until he resigns or is replaced, and he jokes that his days might be numbered under the anti-regulation Trump administration.

“I kid everybody that I’m an endangered species because one of these days the administration is going to realize that I’m a holdover and they’re going to replace me,” FitzGerald said. 

FitzGerald lobbied ORSANCO for stronger water quality protections long before he was a commissioner there, including a 2003 ban on “mixing zones” for facilities with mercury and other bioaccumulative chemicals in their wastewater. Some facilities on the Ohio River that couldn’t meet mercury standards at the end of their pipes were historically allowed to instead measure pollutants at the end of a downstream mixing zone that diluted their discharges. 

“Relying on dilution …  doesn’t seem to be an appropriate pollution control strategy,” FitzGerald said. 

ORSANCO commissioners in 2003 agreed to ban any new mixing zones in the Ohio River for mercury and other toxics. Facilities already using mixing zones would have 10 years to find a way to meet standards without them. 

But by 2010, it was clear some industries wouldn’t meet the deadline. ORSANCO, despite pleas from environmental groups and the public, exempted some polluters from the ban. In 2013, they delayed the deadline to 2015. In 2015, the commissioners dropped the deadline altogether and set a goal to eliminate mixing zones “as soon as is practicable,” which would be left up to the state agencies that issue pollution permits.

“A recognition of the complexities of implementing a hard ban for existing permitted facilities really came to light,” said Harrison, ORSANCO’s executive director. “It was a recognition that the states were the best entity to work in that arena.”

According to the most recent data available from EPA’s Toxic Release Inventory, Dynegy’s Zimmer Station coal plant in Moscow, Ohio, released 100 pounds of mercury compounds into the Ohio River in 2017, the largest discharge that year. The plant is in compliance with its wastewater permit from the Ohio EPA, said Meranda Cohn, director of media relations and corporate affairs with the plant’s parent company. 

“This permit includes strict mercury discharge limits,” she said. 

Lafarge’s Joppa cement plant in Grand Chain, Illinois, released 32 pounds the same year. Clifty Creek Station, a coal plant in Madison, Indiana, released 12 pounds. It’s not clear if any of these facilities were using mixing zones. The data are self-reported by industries.

The ban on new mixing zones on the Ohio River stayed, but leaving the phase-out for existing ones up to the states has played out unevenly in these Ohio watershed states: 

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

Comparing ‘apples and oranges’

According to Rob Reash, environmental scientist and principal at his consultancy company Reash Environmental, a mixing zone ban on the Ohio River wouldn’t significantly affect fish mercury levels there anyway.

An ORSANCO environmental scientist collects an Ohio River water sample for the agency’s bimonthly monitoring program, one of the several projects tracking water quality in the river. Courtesy: ORSANCO

Reash has studied mercury in water — particularly the Ohio River — for decades. He’s a member of the ORSANCO mercury committee. Reash retired last year as an environmental scientist at American Electric Power [AEP], a utility company that runs coal plants in several states along the Ohio River, and set up his own firm this year. As an AEP scientist, he published studies suggesting fish mercury levels aren’t higher near coal plants and much of the mercury in their wastewater is in chemical forms that don’t build up in animal tissues like methylmercury.

Despite consistently publishing results that argue against regulations for the industries that have funded his work, Reash said he hasn’t encountered skepticism of his work.

“One of the primary reasons I’ve been doing this research for so long is it is a priority for me to have credibility with my peers,” Reash said.  “So when I say something, I can be trusted.”

FitzGerald, who also sits on the mercury committee and is familiar with Reash’s work, agrees. 

“He knows his stuff,” he said. “He works for industry, but I think his work has been subject to some pretty significant scrutiny.”

Reash is also familiar with the preliminary results of the ORSANCO study attempting to figure out how much of the mercury in the Ohio River comes from atmospheric sources and industrial wastewater (known as “point sources”).

Referencing the October presentation that said all point sources in the basin — not just those along the main stem — account for about 11% of the instream mercury, Reash said, “That tells me that if you want to reduce mercury in water or in fish, you can’t cap up industrial discharges. It’s not going to work.”

Others familiar with the draft report say it’s a good start, but the final version will have to include important changes to accurately sort out sources of mercury.

For example, the October presentation shows an estimate of how much mercury was deposited from the atmosphere on the land area of each of the Ohio’s tributary watersheds. Those numbers are compared against industrial discharges for the same portion of the river and estimated to be 20 to 50 times larger than the local point sources. 

Joel Blum, professor of earth and environmental sciences at the University of Michigan, is familiar with a draft of the report and has seen the data presented in October. He said this comparison between atmospheric and point sources is “apples and oranges.”

The study, he said, gives a good estimate of how much mercury is deposited on the land. But not all of that mercury flows into the Ohio River.

“We know that a large amount of the mercury that is deposited to the land surface accumulates in organic rich soils and vegetation and in sediments throughout the system,” Blum said. 

“What they need to do is figure out how much of that is actually making it to the river and how much is staying put on the land,” he said. “In all likelihood, it’s a very small percentage.”

Reash agreed that some portion of the mercury is sequestered in the land and there is a level of uncertainty about the atmospheric results. But ORSANCO did the best study they could with the funding they had, he said.

“The big question once this thing gets finalized is what are ORSANCO and the states going to do with this,” he said. “Is it going to modify policy whatsoever?”

State to State Inconsistency 

Even though the atmospheric sources are the more significant source of mercury to the Ohio River, FitzGerald said policies that address industrial sources are worth looking into. 

“Do you ratchet down further those dischargers over which you do have regulatory responsibility and regulatory control? I think it’s a legitimate question and one to address to the individual states,” he said. 

The question would be whether states should apply additional restrictions under authority granted to states through Clean Water Act policies. Under those programs, states monitor lakes and streams, and those that don’t meet certain criteria — chemical concentrations, for example — are added to a list of “impaired” waters. For the most impaired waters, states are required to develop a clean-up plan called a Total Maximum Daily Load, or TMDL. Those plans calculate the total amount of a particular pollutant that is allowed to enter a waterbody. States can then apply additional scrutiny to wastewater permits in an effort to get a lake or river under that amount. 

But, it’s complicated.

Indiana has included its section of the Ohio River on its list of “impaired” waters due to high mercury levels. But the state’s Department of Environmental Management is not developing a TMDL. 

The Indiana Department of Environmental Management “has not found TMDLs to be a particularly useful tool since one of the main sources is air deposition from emissions far from Indiana,” said Barry Sneed, a department spokesman. 

The agency’s report on impaired waters also says that an Ohio River TMDL would require more than one state because it’s a boundary water between states. Across the river from Indiana, Kentucky’s state environmental agency also added its stretch of the Ohio River to its list of waters impaired from mercury. But it removed the river from that list when it said new testing methods showed that fish weren’t as contaminated with methylmercury as previously thought. 

Flickner of the Lower Ohio River Waterkeeper said inconsistencies between states like this are exactly what ORSANCO was originally designed to mitigate.

“They’re giving up the idea that they have any enforcement or can address the states on a regulatory basis at all,” Flickner said. “That’s the message that everybody is getting and there’s really nothing we can do to stop it.”

Jeff Brooks-Gillies, a freelance writer for Environmental Health News, authored this story. He can be reached at jeffgillies@gmail.com.

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

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Fighting for the Ohio River Watershed’s Mussels: Experts Are Working to Get to the Bottom of Their Mysterious Disappearances

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U.S. Forest Service Fisheries Research Biologist Wendell R. Haag holds a pimpleback mussel and a purple wartyback mussel to show the differences in the species. (Photo by Carrie Blackmore Smith/PublicSource)

“Will one of these fit?” Wendell R. Haag asks, holding out a couple pairs of well-worn creeking shoes he’s pulled from the back of his pickup, both decidedly larger than a ladies size 8. Haag is taking me to see an aquatic wonder, and I’ve worn the wrong shoes. In a rush out the door of my Cincinnati apartment on this chilly October morning, I chose a pair of tall waterproof rubber boots, but Haag is sure they’ll fill with water in the sometimes knee-deep stretch of the Licking River we’re about to visit.

Haag grew up near here, in Kentucky. He tells me his fascination with the bottom feeder he’s about to show me began as a child, collecting opalescent nacre shells in shades of pink, purple and peach near his home.

The curious boy became a biologist for the U.S. Forest Service and is now a leading expert in the field of freshwater mussels, with a Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers from President George W. Bush to show for it.

The Ohio River watershed includes the 981-mile main stem, from Pittsburgh to Cairo, Illinois, and also dozens of tributaries. Up and down each of these waterways, the mussel fauna changes; more of one species here, more of another there, different assortments determined by their immediate environments. 

About 130 mussels species have been recorded in the Ohio River system — the most of any other river system on Earth except the Mississippi, because it includes the Ohio.

Haag has taken me to a specific spot on the Licking River to see an environment that supports more types of mussels than just about anywhere. Roughly 40 species have been recorded here, though several are no longer present. For scope, 16 species have been found in all of Europe. 

U.S. Forest Service Fisheries Research Biologist Wendell R. Haag talks about the freshwater mussels that live in this stretch of the Licking River near Butler, Kentucky. (Photo by Carrie Blackmore Smith/PublicSource)

“Very few people know any of this,” says Haag, standing in shorts, a raincoat and a Mississippi National Forest Stream Team ball cap. He adds that even fewer people understand the vital role mussels play in the environment. 

Mussels are good monitors of stream quality; they purify water, provide a structural habitat and food for other organisms and ease something known as nutrient overload, often caused by farm fertilizer run-off and water treatment practices. Mussels can naturally recycle and store some of these nutrients.

A lot of people don’t realize that humans are responsible for the extinction of at least 11 mussel species that once lived in the watershed and that about 70% are considered “imperiled,” meaning their rapid and continuous declines put them at risk of becoming extinct.

Haag is chasing after some answers behind the diminishing population.

“When I go out and look for mussels where they should be, they are disappearing,” Haag says, “time and time again.” Haag has a hypothesis as to why and a plan to test it. “Before I retire, I want to prove what is doing this.”

American Progress Hit Mussels Hard

Let’s just say Jeremy Tiemann is comfortable in a wetsuit. The aquatic ecologist has spent 22 years exploring freshwater habitats, many in the Ohio River watershed. At his job at the Illinois Natural History Survey, housed at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, his work informs how environmental regulations are set in the Prairie State for mussels and other freshwater fauna. 

For all he’s seen, Tiemann is fairly confident that no other aquatic organisms have taken a bigger hit from American progress than the freshwater mollusks, mussels and snails.

“We completely changed the way the river behaves,” Tiemann says by phone from his office, and that’s not a good thing for these sensitive animals.

Tiemann did his master’s thesis on the impact of low head dams on stream ecosystems. While many species suffered setbacks and death from their construction, it specifically devastated many mussel species. It led to extinctions and substantially reduced population densities.

Why? First, the Ohio River was not naturally as deep as it is today. During a dry spell, people could walk across a lot of it. Locks and dams began to be constructed on the Ohio River around 1885 to raise the water level and allow for easier navigation, with the final dam in that system completed in 1929. In the 1950s, the dam system was modernized by the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers to improve flood protection and raise the water level for barges to transport materials like coal and salt.

This stretch of the Licking River near Butler, Kentucky, contains up to 40 species of freshwater mussels. (Photo by Carrie Blackmore Smith/PublicSource)

Mussels typically like free-flowing water, Tiemann explains. Dams pool the water up behind them and create more pond- or lake-like qualities. Silt and debris built up, suffocating mussels. It also restricts fish migrations, which affects mussels because some use fish to complete their life cycles.

People also built dams on smaller tributaries, channelized streams and began discharging mine and industrial waste into the waters. 

So, while the Ohio River watershed has some of the greatest diversity of freshwater mussels anywhere on the planet, they’re in a precarious position, Tiemann says. 

Pollution spills happen with some frequency and can kill them. They were harvested in some areas a few decades ago, when mussel shells were commonly used to make buttons. Mussels have also had to fight for their place against invasive species like the Zebra mussel, a fingernail-sized mollusk native to freshwaters in Eurasia. It is believed they arrived in North America in the 1980s on large ships from Europe, and they crowded out some native mussels early on.

“We are now starting to realize the true effects of the loss of mussels, and some of us want to improve their numbers and mitigate the problems that they face,” Tiemann says. 

This includes reintroduction and rescue missions. Tiemann continues to monitor a 13-year project that involved moving populations of two endangered species of mussels away from a spot in the Allegheny River in Pennsylvania. The Hunter Station Bridge replacement was expected to kill the creatures. Tiemann and his team moved them to some streams in Illinois, while colleagues in the field moved them to six other states in the watershed.

Tiemann says many of the mussels are still living. But his team has yet to see evidence of reproduction, which is ultimately what they want to see. Juvenile mussels are extremely difficult to find so it could be another decade or more before they know if the mussels are reproducing. 

Every day, he says, researchers learn more and more about these creatures. 

“We have more people studying mussels and coming together than ever before,” Tiemann says, adding that the Freshwater Mollusk Conservation Society started with a handful of people in 1989. Now they are 500 strong, worldwide, with European and South American contingents. Founders now have students in leadership positions.

Critical to the Ecosystem, Not Your Diet

U.S. Forest Service Fisheries Research Biologist Wendell R. Haag demonstrates how he looks for freshwater mussels with a bucket that he altered to have a clear bottom, perfect for looking at the riverbed. This stretch of the Licking River near Butler, Kentucky, holds one of the most diverse populations of these bivalves in the world. (Photo by Carrie Blackmore Smith/PublicSource)

Back on the Licking River, Haag has his head in a blue Lowe’s bucket, which he has modified with plexiglass to create a clear bottom. 

Nah, you don’t want to eat these mussels, Haag says, pushing the bucket down and sweeping the river floor to find a live one. 

Native Americans sometimes ate them but more often they would ground up the shells to temper pottery, Haag says. He’s eaten them and says, “They taste awful.” He’s used to first question being whether they’re edible, but he says there’s plenty of other reasons to want to keep mussels around.

Haag has found one in the water. The tip of its two shells is all that’s visible. It’s probably a big one, Haag tells me, carefully wiggling it out of the dirt and lifting the creature out of the water. 

U.S. Forest Service Fisheries Research Biologist Wendell R. Haag holds a mussel shell. Like a tree, each ring on the shell indicates a year of growth. There are roughly 40 types of freshwater mussels in this stretch of the Licking River near Butler, Kentucky, one of the most diverse populations in the world. (Photo by Carrie Blackmore Smith/PublicSource)

The common name for this one is a pink heelsplitter, he says, because they have an elongated wing that protrudes from the stream bottom and could split your foot. The nacre on the inside of their shells is a pinkish purple. The mussel ejects a thin stream of water and retracts a large slimy foot, which it uses to maneuver itself short distances in the riverbed to stay submerged in the stream.

Like with many trees, each ring on the shell of many native mussels represents one year of growth. Most live 20 to 50 years but some live past 100, Haag says. 

It’s hard to imagine mussels suddenly disappearing from a place like this, but Haag has grown accustomed to seeing it happen. He’ll visit a place last documented to have a healthy population of mussels and instead find only dead shells mixed with old mussels past the reproductive stage. It’s only a matter of time before it becomes a shell graveyard.

In his years of research and considering other peer-reviewed work, Haag says he believes only two things could be the cause of the decline: either a disease that has not yet been identified or the Corbicula (Asian clam), an invasive species that has been thought to be harmless for decades.

He hopes an answer will help save these creatures whose benefits are just now being understood and, in some cases, harnessed by humans. 

There is now a discussion about putting a monetary figure on mussels.

A paper on the topic was released in March 2018 in Hydrobiologia, an international journal of aquatic sciences. The authors called for more research on the economic, social and ecological value of mussels as well as “tools that will allow us to value mussel ecosystem services in a way that is understandable to both the public and to policy makers.”

U.S. Forest Service Fisheries Research Biologist Wendell R. Haag holds a pimpleback mussel and a purple wartyback mussel to show the differences in the species. (Photo by Carrie Blackmore Smith/PublicSource)

Haag says it can’t hurt to determine a mussel’s worth. 

Suddenly, he lets out a yip of excitement. He can’t believe our luck. 

Haag waves me over. We peer through the bottom of the bucket together. It’s a plain pocketbook mussel doing something researchers only confirmed the function of in the 1990s. 

The mussel pushes two flaps of her mantle out of her shell in a way that looks deceivingly like two minnows. She is trying to lure a fish by mimicking its prey. When a fish approaches and opens wide, the mussel will spray her larvae into the fish’s face, hoping to hit the gills. There, the baby mussels will attach themselves as parasites and feed off the blood of the fish. The general consensus, Haag says, is they are a relatively benign parasite. Damage to the fish is relatively rare.

It gets wilder. After they attach, they metamorphosize like a caterpillar into a butterfly. They change form — from a glochidia (parasitic microscopic larvae) to a bivalve with a shell.

At this stage, they fall off of the fish, land on the bottom of the stream floor and basically stay put. Studies show that pocketbooks only use bass as a host. “So, it’s integral that those fish are here, too,” Haag says.

‘Fight for these guys’ 

Biologist Janet Clayton is laying some knowledge on the next generation of mussel experts at the annual meeting of the Ohio River Valley Mollusk Group on a November morning.

Clayton has worked with mussels in West Virginia for three decades and has developed mussel surveying methods widely adopted in the field. She’s about to retire.

At the Thomas More University Biology Field Station near Cincinnati, water is circulated from the river into the building, where university staff and students study inhabitants, including mussels and fish. (Photo by Carrie Blackmore Smith/PublicSource)

Today, gathered at the Thomas More University Biology Field Station on the Ohio River in California, Kentucky, she’s passing on specific advice. Her tips include the best brand of glue to adhere tags to a mussel’s shell and the way to sweep an area for mussels to count them properly. 

“Now, it is your turn to fight for these guys,” Clayton tells the group, her voice catching. “Stay true to the resource.” The room, made up of roughly 40 biologists, ecologists, environmental consultants and scholars from six states, gives her a warm round of applause. 

The morning talks wrap up and a discussion begins over the difficulty in getting the public to care about these unseen creatures. “How do we reach them?” one woman asks. 

Professor Christopher Lorentz, director of Thomas More’s environmental science program, runs the facility, lab and conference space, which was originally built as a lock house in the Ohio’s first system of locks and dams. Lorentz, university staff and students study the river and its inhabitants there. Water is circulated from the river to raise and observe its fish, mussels and more.

Mussels are being raised at the Thomas More University Biology Field Station on the Ohio River near Cincinnati. (Photo by Carrie Blackmore Smith/PublicSource)

U.S. Fish and Wildlife, state natural resource departments and nonprofits are working together to review impact of dams and cases where they could be removed. Organizations such as the Ohio River Foundation and The Nature Conservancy have been involved in dam removal and education about mussels. When a permit expires, the state or federal government generally reviews its impact on the environment to decide if it should be replaced or removed, Tiemann says. 

It’s exciting, Lorentz says, to see the synergy between states and experts in the watershed. Scientists are learning more about mussels, “yet, there are some species that aren’t doing well in pristine areas.” And if we can’t figure that out, Lorentz says we can move them around, we can try to preserve them — but what will that do if the mysterious threat is still out there?

Haag says he thinks scientists need to look at the larger patterns and characteristics of the population decline and then focus in more closely on what could cause them. He continues to build on experiments he began in 2015 but fears one day he’ll arrive at this place — one of his favorite stretches of river — and find only dead mussels. But not today. Today we’ll see plenty of mussels, including the fanshell currently listed as endangered. 

“Can you imagine?” Haag says. “It’s like walking into a forest that you know and there are no trees.” He walks on ahead with his bucket and talks of changing the outcome.

Carrie Blackmore Smith, a freelance journalist based in Cincinnati, Ohio, authored this story for PublicSource. She can be reached at carrieblackmoresmith@gmail.com.

This story was fact-checked by Sierra Smith.

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

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A Lasting Legacy: DuPont, C8 Contamination And The Community Of Parkersburg Left To Grapple With The Consequences

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Weathered signage on the Point Park floodwall greets passersby in downtown Parkersburg, West Virginia, on Nov. 20, 2019. Photo: Lexi Browning/100 Days in Appalachia

Tommy Joyce is no cinephile. The last movie he saw in a theater was the remake of “True Grit” nearly a decade ago. “I’d rather watch squirrels run in the woods” than sit through most of what appears on the big screen, he said.

But there’s a film that opened Dec. 5 at the Regal Cinemas at Grand Central Mall that’s attracting a lot of attention in his community. “Dark Waters” — a legal thriller starring Mark Ruffalo, with a script inspired by a 2016 New York Times article — tells the epic story of the DuPont corporation’s failure to inform residents of the Mid-Ohio Valley of the considerable health risks of a perfluoroalkyl substance [PFAS] called perfluorooctanoic acid, or C8, for its chain of eight carbons.

The chemical was used in DuPont’s production of Teflon and other household products at its Washington Works facility just outside Parkersburg, along the Ohio River. C8 is found in nonstick pans, waterproof clothing, stain-resistant carpets, microwave popcorn bags, fast-food wrappers and hundreds of other products. According to a 2007 study, C8 is in the blood of 99.7 percent of Americans. It’s called a “forever chemical” because it never fully degrades.

DuPont had been aware since at least the 1960s that C8 was toxic in animals and since the 1970s that there were high concentrations of it in the blood of its factory workers. DuPont scientists were aware in the early 1990s of links to cancerous tumors from C8 exposure. But company executives failed to inform the Environmental Protection Agency [EPA] or the public.

Joyce graduated from Parkersburg High School in 1992, went off and earned three degrees and came home. He now serves as mayor of the city of Parkersburg — population: 30,000.

Joyce said he’s heard more about his community’s long struggle with corporate environmental malfeasance in the past few weeks than in his previous two and a half years in office. He attributes this to the release of “Dark Waters.”

Even David-and-Goliath tales often have complicated backstories, and Joyce knows well that such is the case with Parkersburg and DuPont. “DuPont has been in the Ohio Valley for 70-plus years, and has been a tremendous employer,” he said. “Without question, DuPont was the place to work in the Mid-Ohio Valley for a lot of years.” Many of his classmates grew up in DuPont families.

Though Chemours, a spinoff company of DuPont, now operates the Washington Works plant, DuPont maintains a presence in the community. A DuPont spokesperson provided an overview of its financial and volunteer support initiatives and wrote that the company supports programs and organizations focused on revitalizing neighborhoods and enhancing quality of life; STEM-related initiatives in local schools; and “initiatives that help protect the environment through clean-up or restoration efforts and allow for DuPont Washington Works to show we are a leader in minimizing our environmental footprint within the community.”

Parkersburg, said Doug Higgs, is the kind of town where everybody knows everybody. Higgs graduated from Parkersburg High a year after Joyce, and Joyce’s mother, Barbara, taught him Sunday school.

“Everybody knows everybody’s business,” Higgs said, but nobody talked about C8. It was a matter of “not wanting to bite the hand that fed you.”

Well-paying jobs, great benefits, Little League sponsorships, investments in the arts — but at a cost. The hand that fed did clench.

Higgs, now an emergency room physician living in Richmond, Virginia, recalls returning from road trips with his family asleep in the back seat, awakened as they approached home by the familiar waft of chemicals.

Two of the Higgs’ most immediate neighbors died in their early 50s of renal cell cancer. Higgs’ father has ulcerative colitis, and his brother received treatment for polycystic kidney disease in high school.

“We all have stories of friends and family, neighbors, dying too young or being diagnosed with various medical problems,” Higgs said.

He knows, of course, the distinction between correlation and causation. But the high incidence of a range of diseases has staggered this community. It’s unfair, Higgs said, that a community should have to perpetually ask what exactly it has been exposed to, and where and when the consequences will end.

DuPont’s own documentation specified that C8 was not to be flushed into surface waters, but the company did so for decades. The chemical seeped into the water supplies of the communities of Lubeck and Little Hocking, immediately west of Parkersburg, and the city of Belpre, Ohio, just across the river; and three other water systems.

In 2004, DuPont paid $70 million in a class-action lawsuit and agreed to install filtration plants in the affected water districts. In 2005, it reached a $16.5 million settlement with the EPA for violations of the Toxic Substances Control Act.

A collective decision was made to use the money won in the class-action suit to conduct an epidemiological study in which nearly 70,000 of the 80,000 plaintiffs stopped into one of six clinics set up throughout the community, provided their medical histories and offered their blood. They were each paid $400.

science panel, comprised of public health scientists appointed by DuPont and lawyers representing the community, was convened to examine the immense database. In 2012, after seven years of study, the panel released a report documenting a probable link between C8 and six conditions: testicular cancer, kidney cancer, thyroid disease, ulcerative colitis, pregnancy-induced hypertension and high cholesterol.

Driftwood is scattered along the shoreline at Point Park in Parkersburg, West Virginia, on Nov. 20, 2019. Photo: Lexi Browning/100 Days in Appalachia

In 2015, DuPont spun off its chemical division into a new company called Chemours, which now occupies the Washington Works facility on the Ohio. In 2017, DuPont and Chemours agreed to pay $671 million to settle some 3,500 pending lawsuits.

“You grew up with the fear of DuPont leaving town,” said Ben Hawkins. Hawkins was student body president of the Parkersburg High class of 1993. He remembers DuPont’s participation in his school’s Partners in Education program and riding in parades on DuPont-sponsored floats.

Among Hawkins’ classmates who have been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer was Mike Cox, a local dentist. Cox, Hawkins and Higgs were among a pack of guys who ran together in high school and stayed close after. Cox was a big Ozzy Osbourne fan, and after a grueling regimen of chemo, Hawkins helped arrange backstage passes to a concert, where Osbourne pulled Cox near and shared his own family’s experience with cancer. Post-diagnosis, Cox had begun performing stand-up comedy routines that incorporated flute solos. He died Jan. 28, 2017, at the age of 41, a father of three.

Hawkins, who now lives in the Washington, D.C., area, views his Partners in Education experiences somewhat differently today: “It wasn’t a partnership; it was a page from a public relations playbook. It was the old ‘hey-look-over-here!’ move to keep the Teflon dollars flowing into their bank account.”

His classmate Beth Radmanesh has similar cynical recollections of DuPont’s role in her childhood. Radmanesh grew up less than a mile from the Washington Works plant. Today, she has high cholesterol. Her dad suffers from discoid lupus, causing sores the size of 50-cent pieces on his forehead. Her brother has lupus and had colon cancer, and her sister-in-law has also been diagnosed with lupus.

But Radmanesh said her mom is a proponent of bringing another controversial industry to the valley: fracking for natural gas. “I said to her, ‘We’ve already had our water contaminated once. Do you want your water [to be] flammable? Because that’s what will happen.’” Her mom’s response was, “‘Oh, Beth.’ That’s it. ‘Oh, Beth.’”

Joe and Darlene Kiger live just a few miles from where Radmanesh grew up. Joe, a physical education teacher, is now quite well known in the community for having raised awareness of the dangers of C8 — called “the devil’s piss” by some — in local water supplies. He and his wife, Darlene, joined the class-action suit that was settled in 2004.

Darlene said that when she and Joe are out around town, “there are a lot of whispers behind your back. They don’t know what to say.” The experience has taken a toll — “these people all looking at you as bringing this on them,” Joe said — but they’ve never considered leaving. “Why would you leave the fight?” he said. “What would it look like if we packed up?”

There’s a lot, Joe said, that DuPont hasn’t yet been held accountable for. Earlier this year, Chemours was cited by the EPA for the unregulated release of new chemical compounds from its West Virginia and North Carolina facilities. “I’m not done yet,” Joe said.

Joe Kiger and his wife Darlene Kiger are photographed at their residence in Washington, West Virginia, on Dec. 4, 2019. The Kigers have spent the last two decades working to uncover the impacts and effects of C8 exposure in the region. “We’ve been through hell over the last 20 years,” Joe Kiger said. Photo: Lexi Browning/100 Days in Appalachia

Harry Deitzler served as a lead attorney, among others, in representing the Kigers and tens of thousands of others in the class-action suit. Deitzler was the architect of the decision to use the $70 million to conduct the study.

“Parkersburg adopted me in 1975,” Deitzler said of his arrival in town. He’d come for a summer internship in the prosecuting attorney’s office. The position didn’t pay enough to cover his room and board, so he took a job in a bar called Friar Tuck’s.

“By the end of the summer, the community was my family,” Deitzler said. “I asked the prosecutor if he’d hire me as an assistant the next year, and he said, ‘Sure; you’ll get $6,000 a year.’ And I said, ‘That’ll be great.’”

“Most people thought I was a recovering alcoholic because I never drank a beer, because I couldn’t afford to buy one.” Three years later, at 27, he was appointed as prosecuting attorney. “Such a wonderful, accepting community.”

But, some three decades later, there was a price to pay for taking on DuPont.

“There was a misperception that we were trying to put DuPont out of business, and, of course, that was created intentionally by the people in Wilmington,” Deitzler said, referring to DuPont’s Delaware headquarters. “When you have a community of that size, and you’ve got several thousand people employed there, and multiply that by the families and their relatives — it’s very upsetting.” Some folks were unsure of what to make of Deitzler.

Attorney Harry Deitzler poses for a portrait in his office at Hill, Peterson, Carper, Bee and Deitzler, PLLC, in Charleston, West Virginia, on Nov. 27, 2019. Deitzler was involved in settling the C8 groundwater contamination suit against DuPont in Parkersburg, West Virginia. Photo: Lexi Browning/100 Days in Appalachia

Longtime resident Nancy Roettger characterizes the community’s reaction to the revelation of what DuPont had done as a “weird mix.”

“There were women that immediately went out and changed their frying pans,” Roettger said. But a lot of those same people decided “that Harry Deitzler is a horrible person” for his role in exposing DuPont.

“It’s like, they don’t want that frying pan anymore,” she said, “but they don’t want anything negative, and they’re very resentful of the people that stirred up the trouble.”

Candace Jones, a neighbor and longtime friend of Roettger’s, said she hates the perception that the community has been divided between the DuPonters and everyone else.

“We’re a community and we all need each other,” Jones said. “I think it’s terrible, absolutely horrendous what happened because of decisions made for monetary gain. But I don’t believe we can blame the everyday worker.” Her father-in-law worked in the Teflon division. “He just went to work every day; he provided for [his family].”

Jones’ friend Janet Ray’s husband passed away 16 years ago from pancreatic cancer. He worked for BorgWarner, a manufacturing company on the river. There are about a dozen houses along Ray’s street in Vienna, a Parkersburg suburb, “and I think just about every house during the time I’ve lived on the street has been affected by cancer.”

Candace Jones, a native of Vienna, West Virginia, is photographed downtown on Nov. 20, 2019. Jones, who has lived in the area for most of her life, recalled DuPont’s heavy involvement in the community, from sponsoring community activities and education to employing a great deal of the area’s residents. Photo: Lexi Browning/100 Days in Appalachia

Ray said she sometimes feels guilty, thinking that perhaps the livelihood her family has enjoyed as a result of her husband’s employment might have caused health problems for others. “I certainly hope it didn’t.”

Tracy Danzey was raised in the quiet of Vienna, there with the Rays, the Joneses, the Higgs family. She now lives on the other side of the state, in West Virginia’s Eastern Panhandle. Danzey was a competitive swimmer growing up. When not competing, “we were on the river … we were playing in the creeks. I was always in the water.”

“It’s hard to look back at that time now and see it as idyllic,” Danzey said.

At age 20, her thyroid began malfunctioning. Five years later, the socket of her hip shattered while running with her husband. She was diagnosed with an atypical form of bone cancer in her right hip. Her hip and leg had to be amputated; she underwent 18 months of high-dose chemotherapy.

Six leading pathologists from across the country were unable to identify the specific type of cancer. “They said it’s very pathologically unusual.” Research has indicated to Danzey, who’s a nurse, that pathologically unusual cancers are not uncommonly associated with industrial poisonings.

Tracy Danzey grew up in Parkersburg, West Virginia, but now lives on the opposite side of the state in its Eastern Panhandle. Danzey was diagnosed with a rare form of bone cancer that led to the amputation of her leg. Doctors couldn’t trace the cause of the cancer, but Danzey believes it was caused by exposure to industrial waste in the waters of Parkersburg that she drank and swam in. Photo: Courtesy Seth Freeman Photography

Danzey’s stepfather is retired from DuPont and her stepbrother works on the Teflon line. “Yes, it is complicated,” her mother, Carolyn Tracewell, said. When her kids were growing up, when someone was hired at DuPont, “there was a celebration” — the good pay, the benefits, “and they did treat their employees well.”

But “my heart hurts,” Tracewell said, to think that her daughter’s illnesses might be a consequence of all that.

Danzey said her mom “mostly just feels pain for me,” worries about her stepson and is anxious about the future. Her stepfather wonders if one day his pension check will no longer arrive as a result of all the financial fallout.

None of them argue with Tracy about the source of her illnesses. “They know what happened.” They allow her “to sit in this truth regardless of how it affects them.” That means a lot.

Danzey is among those who believe that in regard to perceptions of DuPont in the Parkersburg community, there’s a generational divide: Those in their 40s and younger tend to hold a less charitable view than baby boomers and their parents.

There likewise appears to be a generational divide in willingness to drink the water, despite the filtration installed as a result of the settlement.

On the September Saturday afternoon of the annual Parkersburg Paddlefest, kayaker Travis Hewitt, 31, stood ashore of the point where the Ohio meets the Little Kanawha and said that few people he knows truly believe the water’s safe. Sure, he paddles in it, but “I try not to get it on me” and never swims in it. He has a filter installed in his kitchen.

Tommy Joyce, the mayor of Parkersburg, is bullish on West Virginia: “We’ve got enough coal to light the world, gas to heat the world and brains to run the world.”

Fellow Parkersburg High grad Brian Flinn, an engineer, worked for DuPont for eight and a half years; he worked with the raw materials of Teflon. He’s seen both sides. He’s heard, “If DuPont leaves, we’re done. This area will be like most other towns in West Virginia; it’ll collapse.” He’s also aware of the inherent dangers in living within the shadow of the chemical industry. So the sentiment goes, he said, “You take the good with the bad, right?”

But Danzey is unwilling. “I love West Virginia,” she said. “I really do. I love this state. I don’t want to be anywhere else.” But she wants better for West Virginians. Industries come into their communities, do well for a while, “screw up the environment and then leave.”

“It’s time for something new in West Virginia,” she said. “It’s time for us to expect more.”

Pondering that future keeps Ben Hawkins up at night. “What’s next? What’s next for the community, and where does this end? Or does it? What sort of positivity can come to that community? They need it and they deserve it.”

Hawkins asks this: Think about how loyal the people of the Parkersburg community have been to DuPont. What if they had the opportunity to extend that same loyalty to a company that’s equally invested in the economic, physical and emotional health of the community?

“That’s home and always will be home,” Hawkins said of Parkersburg. “We came from that community and that community did a lot to shape us. We all want the best for that community … whatever form that can take.”

Taylor Sisk, a Nashville-based healthcare reporter, authored this story for 100 Days in Appalachia. He can be reached at wtsisk1@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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