In Ohio Watershed, Higher Water Lines And More Hazardous Cargo Thursday, Jan 23 2020 

Just before dawn in January 2018, 27 barges were floating like a net along the banks of the Ohio River, downstream of the city of Pittsburgh. Instead of fish, the fleet caught chunks of ice that broke off in the warming, fast-moving waters as it waited for a tow through the nearby Emsworth Locks and Dams.

The area had experienced record rainfall, and the river rose more than 12 feet in about 30 hours. The barges, some loaded with coal and cement, were lashed together with steel cables in a grid-like pattern, then secured to pilings equipped with large metal mooring rings.

Map from NTSB accident report; Photo by U.S. Coast Guard

(left) Location of the Emsworth Locks and Dam. (right) Aerial photo of barges against the Emsworth Locks and Dam after the breakaway on Jan. 13, 2018.

Crews had worked through the night to monitor the cable tension as ice and rising waters caused the lines to tighten. At 6:15 a.m., a towing vessel captain saw sparks.

His vessel and all of the 27 barges began drifting downstream, propelled by the fast current and extreme weight of ice. Unable to control the barges, the towing vessels saved two and let the rest go.

In the first light of day, they reached the Locks and Dams and met their fate. Seven flowed through the open lock gate. Three hit the dams and sank, taking their cargo with them. The rest grounded on the banks of the river or lodged themselves between the dams and the raging river.

Photo by U.S. Coast Guard

(left) Aerial photo of barges against the Emsworth Locks and Dam after the breakaway on Jan. 13, 2018. (right) Barges after striking the Emsworth Dam.

As is typical with marine accidents, no single factor can be blamed. But federal investigators determined the problem that pushed everything over the edge was the weather. The same day, just south of Wheeling, West Virginia, another 27 barges set loose on the Ohio River due to increased rainfall and ice buildup.

Map by Blue Raster

Over the past decade in the Ohio watershed, which encompasses 15 states from southwestern New York to the northeast corner of Mississippi, extreme weather has been cited more and more frequently as a contributing cause in serious marine accidents. At the same time, a KyCIR analysis found that shipping of hazardous materials like crude oil and kerosene are rising.

These issues have ramifications all along the Ohio River, but particularly in Louisville, home to one of the most difficult passages to navigate. As the conditions on the Ohio — and its cargo — become more hazardous, key regulatory organizations struggle to keep up with the growing demands of this water highway.

More Serious Marine Accidents

Inland marine accidents don’t attract as much publicity as accidents on the oceans. Generally, inland vessels are much smaller, and fewer deaths result from single incidents.

But navigating inland waterways can still be a treacherous endeavor, made more hazardous when the river is high. A 2017 U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ report estimates that up to 50% more water could be coursing through the Ohio River watershed within this century due to climate change.

Alexandra Kanik | wfpl.org

The Ohio River, during high water level, upstream of downtown Louisville on Feb. 15, 2018.

The river’s rise obscures river banks and changes river beds. It creates currents that can pull vessels off course, or throw debris into mariners’ paths.

KyCIR analyzed federal data from 2010 to 2018 on serious marine accidents, which the U.S. Coast Guard defines as incidents involving death or serious injury, excessive property damage or a discharge of hazardous materials.

Nearly 3,400 marine incidents occurred in a nine-year period in the Ohio watershed. In 2010, about 8% were serious. By 2018, serious incidents accounted for 12%.

Alexandra Kanik | wfpl.org

Incidents citing high waters as a contributing factor are on the rise, data show.

Coast Guard serious incident reports from 2010 to 2015 occasionally cited “high waters” or “fast-moving currents” as contributing factors to the accidents. But these terms began to show up more frequently in accident descriptions starting in 2016, data show.

In one 2018 incident near Louisville, barges loaded with crude oil condensate got stuck on the river bank. The pilot struggled to avoid being overtaken by strong currents.

Liam LaRue, chief of investigations for the Office of Marine Safety at the National Transportation Safety Board [NTSB], said the agency has noticed more and more accidents tied to high rivers.

“We’d get a few accidents a week, and they were all just high-water related,” LaRue said. “That’s definitely something that we’ve seen a lot of.”

NTSB only investigates “major” marine accidents, which involve six or more fatalities, $500,000 of damage or the total loss of a vessel.

LaRue has been with NTSB for 14 years, and he said their normal annual workload is between 30 and 40 major cases nationwide. Last year was a record year for his team, he said: they investigated 52 major marine accidents. Most happened on oceanic routes or at coastal shipping ports. But inland accidents like the Emsworth barge breakaway outside of Pittsburgh make the list because of the costly property damage they leave in their wake.

And these accidents are not uncommon in the Ohio watershed, in part because the Ohio River is so difficult to navigate.

Alexandra Kanik | wfpl.org

Louisville’s section of the Ohio River is one of only 12 places in the country with a Vessel Traffic Service — essentially an escort system to help vessels navigate dangerous or congested stretches of river. It is the only inland traffic service and the only one that operates solely during times of high water.

Louisville’s service was established in 1973 after a series of accidents, such as the February 1972 incident when a barge carrying chlorine gas became lodged in the McAlpine dam, threatening lives and requiring the evacuation of the nearby Portland neighborhood.

Between 2012 and 2016, Louisville’s traffic service was activated for an average of 59 days a year. In the last two years, it was active for 151 days and 130 days, respectively.

More Hazardous Cargo

More than 180 million tons of cargo travel up and down the rivers of the Ohio watershed each year, according to a KyCIR analysis of commodities data from the U.S. Corps of Engineers. The river carries shipments of food, alcohol, fuel, construction supplies and even rocket parts.

More and more, those cargo vessels are carrying non-solid fuels.

Alexandra Kanik | wfpl.org

Kerosene shipments increased 1,372% in 2017 when compared to data from 2000. Crude petroleum shipments increased 675%. By contrast, coal and lignite shipments decreased 35%.

This trend follows the decline of coal and the increase in natural gas production in this region. Less coal is being mined as more companies go bankrupt and coal becomes harder to extract. Power plants are retiring coal generators in favor of natural gas units, which are not only cheaper but cleaner.

Alexandra Kanik | wfpl.org

But the non-solid materials taking their place are more hazardous to ship. When a coal barge sinks, it generally stays in one place, said Sam Dinkins, a technical programs manager at the Ohio River Valley Water and Sanitation Commission, an interstate water quality agency known as ORSANCO. But when an oil or liquid hazardous material spills, things get messier, faster.

“Containment of that release becomes problematic because it’s going to flow with the river downstream,” Dinkins said. “And so it spreads out, along with the river flow.”

In many cases, the liquid can change the composition and quality of the water — water that residents in the watershed ultimately drink.

The Louisville water supply faced a potential disaster in December 2017. A barge holding more than 300,000 gallons of liquid fertilizer broke in half just south of Cincinnati, Ohio, threatening the city’s water supply downstream.

This particular spill wasn’t due to high water, but it illustrates the potential for danger. As thousands of gallons of urea ammonium nitrate drifted downriver toward Louisville, the city’s water authority took action.

“This spill was unique because it wasn’t like an oil spill where you could see it on the river,” Louisville Water Company spokeswoman Kelley Dearing Smith told WFPL in 2017. “The chemical was soluble, so our scientists really had to track the spill … to understand how this plume was moving.”

In this case, rain diluted the contamination, and helped it move swiftly through the city. But less than a month later, the rain would cause the barge breakaways near Pittsburgh and in West Virginia.

Alexandra Kanik

A towing vessel and barges moving through the area monitored by the Louisville Vessel Traffic Service on Dec. 22, 2017.

These inland spills may seem less catastrophic than ocean spills, but they’re more likely to cause harm to the surrounding area, said Lt. Cmdr. Takila Powell, U.S. Coast Guard marine investigations supervisor for the district that includes most of the Ohio watershed.

When you have an oil spill on an inland river, Powell said, water is more shallow and the currents are different than on the ocean. It takes a lot less oil to pose a big threat.

“And plus, there’s a higher chance of impact to the shoreline because you’re on a river and there’s two banks on either side,” Powell said. “So at least one could potentially be impacted.”

What’s Being Done

Government agencies and regulatory bodies say they are working together to improve safety and mitigate harm after accidents occur. But change is slow to come.

For example, Congress passed legislation in 2004 that established mandatory inspections for towing vessels. But mandatory inspections didn’t actually begin until 2018, nearly 14 years later.

But as each year brings more volatile weather than the year before, the agencies say they’re trying to be proactive, rather than reactive.

Only recently did the NTSB begin documenting its accident investigations with an internal database. LaRue said the effort will help provide a “better idea about trending and things like that, and hopefully spot safety issues.”

Such a database, when implemented, could help NTSB create a recommendation report on how to avoid weather-related incidents in the future, but the NTSB still lacks enforcement power. Even if its investigators identify safety protocols that could help mariners deal with extreme weather, it would be up to the Coast Guard to implement them.

Alexandra Kanik | wfpl.org

The Ohio River, at normal water level, upstream of downtown Louisville on Dec. 27, 2017.

Currently, the Coast Guard maintains and operates regional plans that help mariners respond to hazards such as high water or inclement weather on specific stretches of river.

Powell said that during times of high water, the Coast Guard subsectors hold conference calls to discuss river levels, vessel restrictions and weather and river forecasts.

Those forecasts are available for mariners from the National Oceanic Atmospheric Association [NOAA], which uses various data points about rainfall and terrain to predict how waterways will react to extreme weather up to 10 days ahead of time.

“That gives them the opportunity to make decisions that are going to help them navigate the rivers safely if the water is coming up quickly,” said Trent Schade, hydrologist in charge of NOAA’s Ohio River Forecast Center. “They have an opportunity to move their boat into a safe harbor.”

But these forecasts give only a short lead on the future of the river. Both the Coast Guard and NOAA say they aren’t focused right now on climate change’s long-term impacts on river safety. When it comes to next year or the next 10 years, the state of the water is much murkier.

Caitlin McGlade contributed to this report.

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.

In Ohio Watershed, Higher Water Lines And More Hazardous Cargo Thursday, Jan 23 2020 

Photos by U.S. Coast Guard

(left) Aerial photo of barges against the Emsworth Locks and Dam after the breakaway on Jan. 13, 2018. (right) Barges after striking the Emsworth Dam.

Just before dawn in January 2018, 27 barges were floating like a net along the banks of the Ohio River, downstream of the city of Pittsburgh. Instead of fish, the fleet caught chunks of ice that broke off in the warming, fast-moving waters as it waited for a tow through the nearby Emsworth Locks and Dams.

The area had experienced record rainfall, and the river rose more than 12 feet in about 30 hours. The barges, some loaded with coal and cement, were lashed together with steel cables in a grid-like pattern, then secured to pilings equipped with large metal mooring rings.

Map from NTSB accident report; Photo by U.S. Coast Guard

(left) Location of the Emsworth Locks and Dam. (right) Aerial photo of barges against the Emsworth Locks and Dam after the breakaway on Jan. 13, 2018.

Crews had worked through the night to monitor the cable tension as ice and rising waters caused the lines to tighten. At 6:15 a.m., a towing vessel captain saw sparks.

His vessel and all of the 27 barges began drifting downstream, propelled by the fast current and extreme weight of ice. Unable to control the barges, the towing vessels saved two and let the rest go.

In the first light of day, they reached the Locks and Dams and met their fate. Seven flowed through the open lock gate. Three hit the dams and sank, taking their cargo with them. The rest grounded on the banks of the river or lodged themselves between the dams and the raging river.

As is typical with marine accidents, no single factor can be blamed. But federal investigators determined the problem that pushed everything over the edge was the weather. The same day, just south of Wheeling, West Virginia, another 27 barges set loose on the Ohio River due to increased rainfall and ice buildup.

Map by Blue Raster

Over the past decade in the Ohio watershed, which encompasses 15 states from southwestern New York to the northeast corner of Mississippi, extreme weather has been cited more and more frequently as a contributing cause in serious marine accidents. At the same time, a KyCIR analysis found that shipping of hazardous materials like crude oil and kerosene are rising.

These issues have ramifications all along the Ohio River, but particularly in Louisville, home to one of the most difficult passages to navigate. As the conditions on the Ohio — and its cargo —  become more hazardous, key regulatory organizations struggle to keep up with the growing demands of this water highway.

More serious marine accidents

Inland marine accidents don’t attract as much publicity as accidents on the oceans. Generally, inland vessels are much smaller, and fewer deaths result from single incidents.

But navigating inland waterways can still be a treacherous endeavour, made more hazardous when the river is high. A 2017 U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ report estimates that up to 50% more water could be coursing through the Ohio River watershed within this century due to climate change.

Alexandra Kanik

The Ohio River, during high water level, upstream of downtown Louisville on Feb. 15, 2018.

The river’s rise obscures river banks and changes river beds. It creates currents that can pull vessels off course, or throw debris into mariners’ paths.

KyCIR analyzed federal data from 2010 to 2018 on serious marine accidents, which the U.S. Coast Guard defines as incidents involving death or serious injury, excessive property damage or a discharge of hazardous materials.

Nearly 3,400 marine incidents occurred in a nine-year period in the Ohio watershed. In 2010, about 8% were serious. By 2018, serious incidents accounted for 12%.

Alexandra Kanik

Incidents citing high waters as a contributing factor are on the rise, data show.

Coast Guard serious incident reports from 2010 to 2015 occasionally cited “high waters” or “fast-moving currents” as contributing factors to the accidents. But these terms began to show up more frequently in accident descriptions starting in 2016, data show.

In one 2018 incident near Louisville, barges loaded with crude oil condensate got stuck on the river bank. The pilot struggled to avoid being overtaken by strong currents.

Liam LaRue, chief of investigations for the Office of Marine Safety at the National Transportation Safety Board [NTSB], said the agency has noticed more and more accidents tied to high rivers.

“We’d get a few accidents a week, and they were all just high-water related,” LaRue said. “That’s definitely something that we’ve seen a lot of.”

NTSB only investigates “major” marine accidents, which involve six or more fatalities, $500,000 of damage or the total loss of a vessel.

LaRue has been with NTSB for 14 years, and he said their normal annual workload is between 30 and 40 major cases nationwide. Last year was a record year for his team, he said: they investigated 52 major marine accidents. Most happened on oceanic routes or at coastal shipping ports. But inland accidents like the Emsworth barge breakaway outside of Pittsburgh make the list because of the costly property damage they leave in their wake.

And these accidents are not uncommon in the Ohio watershed, in part because the Ohio River is so difficult to navigate.

Alexandra Kanik

Louisville’s section of the Ohio River is one of only 12 places in the country with a Vessel Traffic Service — essentially an escort system to help vessels navigate dangerous or congested stretches of river. It is the only inland traffic service and the only one that operates solely during times of high water.

Louisville’s service was established in 1973 after a series of accidents, such as the February 1972 incident when a barge carrying chlorine gas became lodged in the McAlpine dam, threatening lives and requiring the evacuation of the nearby Portland neighborhood.

Between 2012 and 2016, Louisville’s traffic service was activated for an average of 59 days a year. In the last two years, it was active for 151 days and 130 days, respectively.

More hazardous cargo

More than 180 million tons of cargo travel up and down the rivers of the Ohio watershed each year, according to a KyCIR analysis of commodities data from the U.S. Corps of Engineers. The river carries shipments of food, alcohol, fuel, construction supplies and even rocket parts.

More and more, those cargo vessels are carrying non-solid fuels.

Alexandra Kanik

Kerosene shipments increased 1,372% in 2017 when compared to data from 2000. Crude petroleum shipments increased 675%. By contrast, coal and lignite shipments decreased 35%.

This trend follows the decline of coal and the increase in natural gas production in this region. Less coal is being mined as more companies go bankrupt and coal becomes harder to extract. Power plants are retiring coal generators in favor of natural gas units, which are not only cheaper but cleaner.

Alexandra Kanik

But the non-solid materials taking their place are more hazardous to ship. When a coal barge sinks, it generally stays in one place, said Sam Dinkins, a technical programs manager at the Ohio River Valley Water and Sanitation Commission, an interstate water quality agency known as ORSANCO. But when an oil or liquid hazardous material spills, things get messier, faster.

“Containment of that release becomes problematic because it’s going to flow with the river downstream,” Dinkins said. “And so it spreads out, along with the river flow.”

In many cases, the liquid can change the composition and quality of the water — water that residents in the watershed ultimately drink.

The Louisville water supply faced a potential disaster in December 2017. A barge holding more than 300,000 gallons of liquid fertilizer broke in half just south of Cincinnati, Ohio, threatening the city’s water supply downstream.

This particular spill wasn’t due to high water, but it illustrates the potential for danger. As thousands of gallons of urea ammonium nitrate drifted downriver toward Louisville, the city’s water authority took action.

“This spill was unique because it wasn’t like an oil spill where you could see it on the river,” Louisville Water Company spokeswoman Kelley Dearing Smith told WFPL in 2017. “The chemical was soluble, so our scientists really had to track the spill … to understand how this plume was moving.”

In this case, rain diluted the contamination, and helped it move swiftly through the city. But less than a month later, the rain would cause the barge breakaways near Pittsburgh and in West Virginia.

Alexandra Kanik

A towing vessel and barges moving through the area monitored by the Louisville Vessel Traffic Service on Dec. 22, 2017.

These inland spills may seem less catastrophic than ocean spills, but they’re more likely to cause harm to the surrounding area, said Lt. Cmdr. Takila Powell, U.S. Coast Guard marine investigations supervisor for the district that includes most of the Ohio watershed.

When you have an oil spill on an inland river, Powell said, water is more shallow and the currents are different than on the ocean. It takes a lot less oil to pose a big threat.

“And plus, there’s a higher chance of impact to the shoreline because you’re on a river and there’s two banks on either side,” Powell said. “So at least one could potentially be impacted.”

What’s being done

Government agencies and regulatory bodies say they are working together to improve safety and mitigate harm after accidents occur. But change is slow to come.

For example, Congress passed legislation in 2004 that established mandatory inspections for towing vessels. But mandatory inspections didn’t actually begin until 2018, nearly 14 years later.

But as each year brings more volatile weather than the year before, the agencies say they’re trying to be proactive, rather than reactive.

Only recently did the NTSB begin documenting its accident investigations with an internal database. LaRue said the effort will help provide a “better idea about trending and things like that, and hopefully spot safety issues.”

Such a database, when implemented, could help NTSB create a recommendation report on how to avoid weather-related incidents in the future, but the NTSB still lacks enforcement power. Even if its investigators identify safety protocols that could help mariners deal with extreme weather, it would be up to the Coast Guard to implement them.

Alexandra Kanik

The Ohio River, at normal water level, upstream of downtown Louisville on Dec. 27, 2017.

Currently, the Coast Guard maintains and operates regional plans that help mariners respond to hazards such as high water or inclement weather on specific stretches of river.

Powell said that during times of high water, the Coast Guard subsectors hold conference calls to discuss river levels, vessel restrictions and weather and river forecasts.

Those forecasts are available for mariners from the National Oceanic Atmospheric Association [NOAA], which uses various data points about rainfall and terrain to predict how waterways will react to extreme weather up to 10 days ahead of time.

“That gives them the opportunity to make decisions that are going to help them navigate the rivers safely if the water is coming up quickly,” said Trent Schade, hydrologist in charge of NOAA’s Ohio River Forecast Center. “They have an opportunity to move their boat into a safe harbor.”

But these forecasts give only a short lead on the future of the river. Both the Coast Guard and NOAA say they aren’t focused right now on climate change’s long-term impacts on river safety. When it comes to next year or the next 10 years, the state of the water is much murkier.

Caitlin McGlade contributed to this report.

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.

The post In Ohio Watershed, Higher Water Lines And More Hazardous Cargo appeared first on Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting.

Duck Stamps Fund New Wildlife Refuge In West Kentucky Tuesday, Jan 21 2020 

Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear approved a new funding stream Tuesday to help establish a wildlife refuge in Western Kentucky.

A portion of the funds collected from Federal Duck Stamps, as in duck-themed postage stamps, will now go toward establishing the 24,000 acre wildlife refuge at the confluence of the Ohio and Green rivers.

“We are thankful for Leader McConnell’s support of the Green River National Wildlife Refuge,” said Gov. Andy Beshear. “Together, we are showing our commitment to long-term conservation and expanding access to our natural wonders in Western Kentucky.”

Goals of the newly established refuge include protecting wetlands and bottomland forest habitat, supporting waterfowl and migratory birds, and providing recreational opportunities for hunters, birders and anglers among others, according to U.S. Fish and Wildlife.

So far the Green River National Wildlife Refuge comprises about 10 acres thanks to a donation from the Southern Conservation Corp. Funding from the stamps could help federal officials purchase more conservation lands.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services

But… the refuge happens to sit downstream from a coal ash landfill owned by Big Rivers Electric Corporation that, as of November, is leaking hazardous levels of pollution into the waterway. It remains unclear how much of the river is impacted by that pollution.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announced the creation of the Green River National Wildlife refuge last November, but it’s been in the works since 2018. The creation of the refuge marks the 568th in the National Wildlife Refuge System.

“I’m grateful Gov. Beshear answered the call to protect Western Kentucky’s outdoor heritage at the Green River National Wildlife Refuge,” McConnell said. “For years, I worked with local, state and federal partners to establish this refuge, and I’m proud of the enormous support we received from the Henderson community.”

The Ohio River Community Of Newport Bands Together To Slow Runoff And Add Greenspace Thursday, Dec 26 2019 

The city of Newport, Kentucky, is shaped on its north and west borders by the Ohio and Licking rivers. And while Newport hosts entertainment venues and a bourbon distillery bolstered by views of Cincinnati’s skyline, its geography and history also create challenges. 

As a Rust Belt town with a steel mill and a lead-smelting plant no longer in use, Newport’s population of 15,000 people is half of what it was in 1960.

The community is left with many vacant lots, more concrete than greenspace, and sewers that overflow into streets and basements after a hard rain. 

To slow the flow, residents have adopted the idea of strategic depaving. Depaving, or removing unnecessary pavement, creates the opportunity for more greenspace and makes it more likely that rainwater would be absorbed rather than entering the outdated infrastructure.

With the community looking to be part of the solution, the goal became to “design those amenities to provide the ecosystem services that we want from green infrastructure,” said Kirsten Schwarz, who led the effort in her capacity as director of the Northern Kentucky University Ecological Stewardship Institute.

The Problem: Sewer Overages

With an outdated stormwater system, Northern Kentucky’s Sanitation District [SD1] sees more than 1 billion gallons annually of combined sewer overflows (storm and sanitary). 

When more than a quarter-inch of rain is predicted, SD1 notifies residents in its service area via their Wet Weather Notification Program to avoid direct contact with local waterways and the pathogens flowing through them.

Leigh Taylor/Eye on Ohio

A pile of concrete sits in Newport, Kentucky, on Dec. 8, 2019. A coalition is building more parks to increase greenspace and grass to absorb rainwater and reduce strain on outdated stormwater infrastructure.

In 2005, SD1 entered into a consent decree with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet with the intention of mitigating overflows by 2025. In February 2019, SD1 requested an extension to the year 2040. 

The infrastructure upgrades needed to meet their goals is estimated to cost $1.3 billion.

“The extension will allow us to spread infrastructure capital costs over a longer period, reducing the financial impact to our customers while ensuring progress on overflow mitigation,” said SD1 Executive Director Adam Chaney.

Residents Look To Make A Difference

While SD1 is hoping for a new 2040 deadline to make its upgrades, Newport community members are seeking solutions now. 

The university Ecological Stewardship Institute “wanted to work in the neighborhood on a project developed around community needs,” said Schwarz, the institute’s director.

Bonnie Jean Feldkamp/Eye on Ohio

Volunteers help ReNewport Executive Director Josh Tunning (far left) plant trees where they’ve depaved sections of the sidewalk in Newport, Kentucky.

Together with community partners ReNewport and Westside Citizens’ Coalition, they conducted a survey and found the two main things Newport community members asked for was access to greenspace and better water quality. 

With that input, the coalition pitched to Newport the concept of strategic depaving.

Then, they asked at community meetings: “Where would you like to see greenspace and how would you use it?”

About six months into the community engagement that began in July 2018, the City of Newport learned of the efforts and reached out to Schwarz with an idea.

In 2015, the city built The Scholar House — a building for housing and education — on the site of the original Bernadette Watkins Park.

“They owed the neighborhood a park,” Schwarz said. The city had an open field directly across the street from the original park location because it demolished a housing complex there to accommodate road expansion. The city hoped it could develop a new Bernadette Watkins Park in that space and align it with the efforts of the coalition. 

Thanks to a grant from Perfetti van Melle, an Italian manufacturer of confectionery and gum, the city installed playground equipment on Sept. 27. The next phase of the new Bernadette Watkins Park includes plans for rain and pollinator gardens.

“We were excited to see the results of their community input process, as it validated the city’s efforts in the park as well,” said Larisa Sims, assistant city manager of Newport and the city’s project manager for the park.

Containing Stormwater

The ultimate goal of green infrastructure is to keep rainwater as close to where it falls as possible. When an urban area lacks greenspace, water can’t get absorbed and it overwhelms the wastewater collection system. Many older river cities have outdated infrastructure. 

ReNewport approaches stormwater challenges in its community by assessing vacant lots for greenspace opportunities.

We’re really trying to make as many tiny sponges around the neighborhood as possible,” said Steve Mathison, vice president for ReNewport. 

They’re doing this in three ways: depaving, installing rain barrels and rain gardens, and planting trees.

Depaving isn’t as simple as getting rid of pavement and replacing it with greenery. Schwarz, who also studies contaminated soil, cautioned that while the vacant lands left behind by shrinking cities can support sustainability initiatives, “many are the same aging cities that have experienced the highest soil lead burdens from their industrial past as well as the historic use of lead-based paint and leaded gasoline.” 

It’s important when taking on a depaving project that part of the strategy is understanding the history of the property and testing for contaminants, she said. It doesn’t have to stop the project, but “it can inform how you’re going to use the space,” she said. 

A 2010 study conducted in the European Union took a comprehensive look at the most commonly used pavements and showed that where a sealed asphalt surface provides zero stormwater absorption, an unpaved surface provides 90% absorption. 

Depaving doesn’t have to mean pulling up concrete in an abandoned lot. Switching from conventional asphalt to porous asphalt on a driveway can reduce imperviousness by as much as 50%

Rain barrels collect water from rooftops and store it for later use in gardens, lawns or even indoor plants. A drip line on a rain barrel also helps slowly release the collected water for better absorption. This not only reduces stormwater overload but also reduces  water costs during dry spells. 

Rain gardens can be helpful if the property has a low spot that tends to pool or sludge during rain events. A rain garden is designed to intercept rainwater and slow it down. 

Campbell County, Kentucky, (where Newport is located) offers residents financial assistance when implementing conservation practices in their own backyards.

Planting trees is vital to the urban landscape. Water is intercepted on tree leaves and bark surfaces, and trees suck it up from the soil. Trees also improve infiltration of water into the soil and clean the air.

Adam Berland is an assistant professor of geography for Ball State University and researches urban forestry. 

“A newly planted tree, one you can carry around, won’t do much in the beginning but, by the time it’s 20 years old, it will be doing a good amount of stormwater management,” he said, adding that existing trees should be taken care of before planting new ones.

Most cities have an arborist or a county extension office with a list of recommended trees for the area, as well as ones to avoid.

Online tools such as Mytree.itreetools.org can provide data, such as how much water has been intercepted and how much runoff has been avoided. For example, an oak tree about 17 inches in diameter can intercept 1,800 gallons of water per year. 

Newport’s Green Future

While the Bernadette Watkins Park was being reestablished on the west side of Newport, ReNewport had another depaving project planned for the east side. They acquired a lot that was once a gas station. They pulled concrete, tested and leveled the soil, and planted trees along its perimeter. More community engagement forums will help decide the future of the space. 

ReNewport has decided to take what Northern Kentucky University began and formally adopt a strategic depaving project for Newport. The organization has identified more than 100 lots within the city with future greenspace potential. 

Leigh Taylor/Eye on Ohio

A small shelter with benches at Bernadette Watkins Park in Newport, Kentucky.

“ReNewport has been involved since the very beginning,” Schwarz said, “and we’re so excited they want to take it over.” 

Strategic depaving wasn’t something that was necessarily in ReNewport’s plan aside from beautifying lots, Mathison said. 

But “it captures the spirit of multiple small organizations coming together to create a bigger project and have a positive impact on stormwater issues. We’re looking forward to seeing positive results in the neighborhood within the next year.”

Bonnie Jean Feldkamp is a Cincinnati-based freelance writer. Find her on social media @WriterBonnie or at WriterBonnie.com.

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

On The Most Populated Ohio River Island, This Beekeeper Found A Way To Better Himself And His Community Tuesday, Dec 24 2019 

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.

The rest of the produce was sold at farmer’s markets, which provided enough of an income that Dave was able to transition out of a traditional 9-to-5 job. He has worked in everything from pest control to agriculture to commercial painting; he refers to himself as a jack of all trades. Within the last year, he converted the plot from vegetables to fruit, which Dave says are easier to maintain as he ages. They are establishing a pick-your-own berry patch, where they will sell berries by the pound to people living in the economically struggling community.

“We didn’t do the garden thing to try to improve the community, but we get a lot of people come by and say how we’re doing such a nice job in the garden,” Dave recounts. “It’s something Wheeling Island needs.”

And it’s something he needs. It provides an income, but also a place to bond with his three children and eight grandchildren, like 4-year-old Izzy who helps pick strawberries. 

While he’s dedicating the land to Libby and Mary, he will name the berry patch after his wife, Cheryl. Dave says she has taught him how to love over the years and continues to do so each and every day.

Cheryl’s Berry Patch will open in 2020 for its first season. 

Rebecca Kiger, the author of this story, is a documentary photographer based out of Central Appalachia (Wheeling, West Virginia). She can be reached at rebeccakphoto@gmail.com. 

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

Rising Waters: Aging Levees, Climate Change And The Challenge To Hold Back The Ohio River Thursday, Dec 19 2019 

When 78-year-old Jim Casto looks at the towering floodwalls that line downtown Huntington, West Virginia, he sees a dark history of generations past.

The longtime journalist and local historian is short in stature, yet tall in neighborhood tales. On Casto’s hand shines a solid gold ring, signifying his more than 40 years of reporting at the local paper. “It was a lot cheaper to give me a ring than to give me a pay raise,” he said with a chuckle.

He walks up to the entrance of Harris Riverfront Park, one of 21 gate openings in the more than 3.5 miles of floodwalls covered in decades of charcoal-colored grime and dirt.

The river has shaped the city, providing the transportation for coal, steel and chemical products. But Casto also knows the river has the power to destroy, as it did before the omnipresent walls were there.

Casto published a photobook on the most destructive flood the Ohio River Valley has seen.

“January of 1937 was exceptionally warm. And that meant that the snow on the hillsides melted much earlier than usual and faster than usual. Then, there were 19 consecutive days of rain,” Casto said.

Huntington District, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers photo of Fourth Avenue in Huntington, West Virginia, during the 1937 flood.

He points to the number 69 near the top of a decorative gauge marking river heights.

“That is the ’37 flood,” he said. The river rose to nearly 20 feet above flood stage — more than 69 feet high.

Thousands of Huntington residents were forced from their homes. The county courthouse became a virtual port for rescue boats.

“As Time magazine in ’37 described it: ‘Hell and High Water,’” Casto said.

Ohio River communities from Pittsburgh to Cairo, Illinois, were inundated. About a million people were left homeless; 385 people were killed; and the flood, adjusted for current inflation, caused an estimated $9.12 billion in damages.

In the wake of the disaster, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers took on a mammoth effort to construct hundreds of miles of levees, floodwalls and numerous pump stations to keep back rising water. Those defenses are now, on average, nearly 60 years old. Huntington’s system was built in 1943, one of the oldest in the basin.

That advanced age worries local officials from several Ohio Valley towns who look after these defenses, plagued by rust, antiquated designs, archaic pump engines and, in some places, sinkholes. They say funding is scarce to upgrade World War II-era safeguards that protect $120.7 billion in property and about 720,000 people throughout the Ohio River basin.

Huntington is one of a dozen levee systems in the basin that the Corps of Engineers classifies as a “high risk” due to the combination of aging infrastructure and the people and property that would be harmed if the system were to fail. The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates aging levee systems like these across the country will need $80 billion in upgrades within the next decade.

The challenge is made greater by the growing menace of climate change. A warmer, wetter climate could intensify the severity and frequency of flooding and send up to 50% more water flowing through Ohio Valley waterways within this century.

Liam Niemeyer

Mike Pemberton (left, bottom) shows a dated sensor that uses mercury in Pump Station Number Six in Ironton, Ohio.

Aging Protection

With the twist of a cold handle, a heavy, metal door creaks open, the sound echoing throughout the cavernous Pump Station Number Six on the west side of Ironton, Ohio, along the Ohio River.

“Like going into the Frankenstein laboratory, wasn’t it?” said Mike Pemberton, who’s managed flood defense for decades in the city of more than 10,000 people, a half-hour downstream from Huntington. Four gigantic red pumps protrude 10 feet from the ground below a raised platform, where large, green electrical switchboards from the 1940s take up most of the space.

Pemberton motions to a sensor with a weighted pulley that uses mercury to tell how much water is being pumped during high water; modern equipment, on the other hand, would be computerized. He said it’s fairly reliable, but sometimes the mercury container collects a film of carbon material that he shakes off.

“Slap the side of it, and sometimes that’ll clean the carbon off the mercury,” Pemberton said.

Ironton’s flood defense system of pump stations, levees and floodwalls were also built in the 1940s, much like in Huntington. The sensor is something he can see and more easily maintain. Yet some things remain outside his experienced sight, including the more than half-century-old pipes that run through the station and the sluice gates that seal water from flooding the station itself.

“We don’t know the condition of the inside of that pipe. We don’t know if that gate could have a stress crack in it,” Pemberton said. “That’s some of the things I kind of worry about.”

Pemberton’s maintenance worries extend far beyond to nine other archaic pump stations, almost four miles of earthen levee and over another mile of floodwall. He said a local tax levy that generates about $260,000 a year for his department mostly funds salaries for three employees and daily maintenance on the flood protection system. That includes tasks such as mowing the grass on top of levees and greasing pump motors.

Ironton voted in 2014 to double the tax levy. Pemberton campaigned for the measure by hanging signs marking the 1937 flood level throughout the city’s historic downtown, reaching the second floor of many buildings.

Ironton City Council also passed an ordinance in 2018 that created a monthly $5 flood protection fee tacked onto utility bills. That revenue goes into a Flood Improvement Fund that had a little more than $200,000 as of late November, according to the city’s finance director. Ironton’s per capita income is about $20,000 and the city’s poverty rate hovers at 20%, but the city didn’t have many other options.

“To nobody’s knowledge was there anywhere, any kind of money available to go after that would meet the kind of needs, and there was an immediate need,” said Jim Tordiff, the former Ironton councilman who drafted the ordinance. “It had gone on too long and couldn’t be ignored.”

But Pemberton said even with the extra local funding, the glaring, long-term problems still pile up.

Pump Station Five, directly along the banks of the Ohio, is the first station that’s turned on when high waters hit Ironton. Pump engines have caught fire over the decades and, a few years ago, Pemberton said, the electrical switchgear controlling the station’s pumps also went up in flames. He said his department was only able to afford the $198,000 switchgear repair cost because of a city insurance payment.

But he can’t rely on insurance for the future, he said, as all of his stations have the same outdated switchgears that could fail. He estimates each station would cost around the same amount to receive an upgrade — money he and other Ohio River communities in similar situations struggle to find.

“You can imagine the maintenance and repairs and the parts and pieces that it would take and the cost it would take to keep a 1940 car on the road today,” said Sherry Wilkins, director of the Huntington Stormwater Utility. “That’s kind of what we’re dealing with here, we’re dealing with an 80-year-old system.”

Wilkins said Huntington encounters a lot of the type of problems with an aging system that Pemberton described in Ironton.

Liam Niemeyer

Stan Wonnell (left), floodwall coordinator for the Huntington Stormwater Utility, and Sherry Wilkins, director of the utility.

The flood defense employees she manages often have to hunt across the country for pump station replacement parts, like leather straps or metal brackets, or pay extra to get custom parts made, simply because the parts for the World War II-era equipment aren’t manufactured anymore.

“Our floodwall has a 50-year design life,” Wilkins said, meaning that obscure replacement parts must be custom-made and can cost thousands of dollars. “The average person wouldn’t think of that, ‘Wow, does it really cost $20,000 to repair a pump?’ So, currently we don’t have the money to do those kinds of things continually.”

Wilkins said grant funding is tight because of competition with dozens of other municipalities in need. And in older cities, other aging infrastructure issues may be a higher priority when it comes to applying for grants.

If there were a flood that damaged Huntington’s downtown floodwall, the Corps of Engineers would not help the city pay for repairs.

The federal government fully funds repairs to a system after a disaster through the Rehabilitation and Inspection Program, but only if the system meets basic inspection requirements. The Corps of Engineers inspects flood defense systems annually on physical flaws and administrative practices, such as whether cities practice routine floodwall gate closures.

If the inspection is considered at least “minimally acceptable,” the Corps will cover damage from a disaster.

The reason Huntington’s downtown floodwall does not qualify? A sinkhole, almost the size of a car, threatens to swallow up ground near the city’s 11th Street Pump Station.

“It’s not just Huntington, it’s every single floodwall that was built in the 1930s, 1940s. It is not a luxury. It is a necessity,” Wilkins said. “It’s a problem nationwide.”

With scientists predicting warmer temperatures and more frequent flooding due to climate change, the urgency is growing to address aging infrastructure.

Warmer, Wetter Future

Huntington as warm as Los Angeles. Cincinnati as hot as Atlanta: Those are just some of the predicted temperature rises in the Ohio River basin in the coming century, according to a 2017 report studying the effects of climate change. The Army Corps, the National Weather Service, regional universities and other federal and state partners worked on the study.

Alexandra Kanik | wfpl.org

Jim Noel is a service coordination hydrologist with the National Weather Service Ohio River Forecast Center and one of the authors of the study. He said the higher temperatures predicted in the study tend to increase the amount of water evaporation, which not only could mean more rainfall but also increase the frequency and severity of floods and droughts throughout the basin.

Already, several cities in the region saw record rainfall in 2018. Cincinnati saw its third wettest year, and Charleston, Pittsburgh, Columbus and Louisville all saw their wettest year ever.

Some levee systems in parts of the Ohio River basin — including Huntington and Ironton —  could see an average annual river streamflow increase of 25% to 35% by 2099. That increases the chance of another flood on the scale of the historic one in 1937.

Noel said the Ohio River basin today has several extra protections beyond the floodwalls and levees, such as dams and reservoirs along tributary rivers, that help control water levels before they reach levee systems.

“The 1937 flood happened before most of the flood control projects in the Ohio basin,” Noel said. “Therefore, for example, like if you look at Cincinnati, Ohio, or Louisville, Kentucky, those kind of cities, if 1937 were to exactly repeat itself, the crest on the Ohio River would be some 8 to 10 feet lower in many locations because of the great ability of the Army Corps of Engineers to regulate that flow in that water through their flood control projects.”

And the height of some older floodwalls and levees could already be capable of handling higher waters, according to Kate White who led the 2017 Corps study.

Margaret Bourke-White photographed flood victims in Louisville, Kentucky, awaiting relief supplies — an iconic image of the 1937 Ohio River flood.

White said levee projects created in the 1940s often estimated how high to build their levees using what’s called the freeboard method. Past engineers would calculate how high potential floods could be from historical records and then add a few feet on top of that height as a buffer. While newer levees have a more modern analysis for calculating the right flood protection height, she said the old method still offers relatively robust protection.

“I just think there are older things that are still perfectly fine if they’ve been maintained and looked after,” White said.

Flood protection managers including Pemberton, Wilkins and others along the Ohio River generally agree that stationary floodwalls and earthen levees are relatively solid compared to the moving parts of pump station equipment.

Army Corps Huntington District Levee Safety Program Manager John Ferguson said he expects all the levee systems in the upper Ohio Valley to perform as expected. But the increasing age is still a question.

“Maybe the general consensus on most of these projects is a 50-year design life, but again, that’s not a hard or fast rule that really means anything,” Ferguson said. “And yes, that just proves that it’s aging infrastructure like everything else in the country. We just got to take care of it and make sure we maintain it.”

Army Corps officials like Ferguson are relying on a system called Levee Safety Action Classification to help prioritize which aging levee systems carry more risk. A levee gets a risk classification based on its condition and the people and property it protects.

Twelve levee systems in the Ohio River basin have a “high” risk classification, including in Huntington, Louisville and systems protecting cities as small as Brookport, Illinois. This classification calls on officials to increase the “frequency of levee monitoring” and ensure the “community is aware of flood warning and evacuation procedures.”

The risk surrounding aging levees was a prominent topic at a Huntington meeting in November among several local levee project managers. Corps officials, including Ferguson, recommended that managers join forces to be a louder voice for federal funding.

“It’s a completely different story if you have every project, from Parkersburg to Maysville, that raises their hand and says, ‘Hey, we’ve got aging infrastructure,’” Ferguson said. “If there’s a lot of ‘squeaky wheels,’ it gets a lot of grease.”

Pemberton in Ironton said there was once an association of regional floodwall managers who advocated for infrastructure improvements, but that group dissolved in the early 2000s. He isn’t sure what future flooding from climate change will look like, but he said he believes banding flood defense managers together will help alleviate some of the uncertainty.

And when Pemberton hears about climate change from local meteorologists, the nagging worries he has for the future only continue to dog him.

“‘What if’ I guess [are] the two big words. ‘What if?’”

Liam Niemeyer, a reporter for Ohio Valley ReSource, authored this story. He can be reached at lniemeyer1@murraystate.edu.

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.

Ever Hear Of A Nurdle? This New Form Of Pollution Could Be Coming To The Ohio River Tuesday, Dec 17 2019 

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 — nurdles. 

First Sightings Of Nurdles

Nurdles are tiny plastic pellets similar in size to a lentil and 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.

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. 

Reid Frazier/The Allegheny Front

Construction of Shell’s $6 billion ethane cracker along the Ohio River in Beaver County, Pennsylvania, in June 2019.

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.

Jace Tunnell

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.

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.

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.

Jace Tunnell

Jace Tunnell (left) and Sam Sugarek scour a beach in Texas in search of nurdles. The Nurdle Patrol protocol calls for documenting the number of nurdles found in 10 minutes of searching.

“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.

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. 

Reid Frazier/The Allegheny Front

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.

“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, southwest of Pittsburgh, near Wheeling, West Virginia. In an email, the Ohio EPA said the plant will include secondary containment and catch basins with screens to prevent nurdles from being discharged into the Ohio River.  

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

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

“I am extremely concerned about plastics and especially microplastics and nurdles,” said Randi Pokladnik, a representative of the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, one of the groups that signed the petition. “We do need to get some baseline data on the Ohio.”

Tunnell recommended that people in Pennsylvania and Ohio use his Nurdle Patrol protocol to gather data before petrochemical plants start operating. Showing that there are no nurdles on the banks of the Ohio River now can be a powerful tool to hold industry accountable later, he said.

“Even zeros are data.”

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

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

Fighting Pollution And Apathy On The Lower Ohio, It’s Not Easy Being A Southern Indiana Waterkeeper Saturday, Dec 7 2019 

NEW ALBANY, Ind. — 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.”

Photo by Jeff Brooks-Gillies/Environmental Health News

Jason Flickner watches his dogs run in the yard of his home in New Albany,
Indiana.

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.)

Photo by Jeff Brooks-Gillies/Environmental Health News

The house Jason Flickner’s grandparents built in the 1970s sits in the hills on
the west side of New Albany, Indiana.

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’

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.

Photo by Jeff Brooks-Gillies/Environmental Health News

Jason Flickner points out features of the Ohio River from the fossil
beds at the Falls of the Ohio State Park.

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?

Photo by Jeff Brooks-Gillies/Environmental Health News

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

“People know that it’s problematic,” Canon said. “People know that we should be doing more to keep the water clean. But the problem is so big for most of us that we don’t really stop to think about it in terms of what are the mechanics of actually making it happen.”

Flickner sees it similarly, often saying that people, regardless of their political affiliation, “wear blinders” to the problem because it feels too big. But the mechanics are clear to him: You sue.

“We’re not talking about population growth,” Flickner said, giving a common example of an intractable environmental problem. “We’re talking about a river where there are actual permits” issued by the state that can be challenged in court.

But to do that, he needs money (because litigation isn’t cheap) and members (to convince a judge his group has legal standing).

‘Something will come through’ 

Flickner is just as frustrated with the people who he knows agree with him on environmental issues. They tell him the work he’s doing is important, but they don’t donate. They complain about the Trump administration’s environmental rollbacks, but they don’t give to causes that are fighting the effects.

The day he woke up to a checking overdraft, he said he blew up at two old friends who “commented in ignorance” in text messages about the Environmental Protection Agency’s recent weakening of the Waters of the United States rule, which defines the bodies of water that fall under federal jurisdiction. The next morning, he woke up to an email notice that one of the friends had set up a recurring annual $500 donation to Lower Ohio River Waterkeeper. He was grateful.

In the meantime, in the sitting room with the dog-licked windows, there’s a table with stuff from his grandparents’ house to sort through to see what he might be able to sell. There are also remnants of his grandparents’ turn as antique dealers — chairs, baskets — that aren’t family heirlooms and might get a good price from a local shop.

“I’ve been broke on and off like this my entire life,” he said. “Something will come through. Something always does.”

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

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

Paddling 300 Miles To Protect The Waters Of Ohi:yo’, The ‘Good River’ Thursday, Nov 14 2019 

For degawëno:da’s, paddling the length of the Allegheny River over the course of four months this year was to be a “witness to the raw element of the natural world.”

The roughly 300-mile trip began on May 18 at the river’s headwaters near Coudersport, Pa., and ended on Sept. 21 by the Point State Park fountain in downtown Pittsburgh.

The 49-year-old New York resident is a member of Defend Ohi:yo’, a grassroots organization committed to protecting the Allegheny River and all waterways. “Ohi:yo’” translates to “good river” in the Seneca language.

The Allegheny and Monongahela rivers form the beginning of the Ohio River in Pittsburgh, and much of the Allegheny River flows within the Ohio River watershed.

Sometimes alone on legs of the journey, other times accompanied by fellow paddlers, degawëno:da’s said the trip was to call attention to the need for vigilance in protecting the region’s waters and to “give people an opportunity to acknowledge their natural surroundings.”

Along the river, degawëno:da’s saw not only beauty but also industrialization and, on many portions of the trip, he said he felt his ancestors traveling along as well. “I had a few instances where they revealed themselves in different ways.”

He hopes to follow up with many of the people he met along the journey, continuing to impress upon them the importance of protecting the waterway and advocating that it have the same rights to safety and well-being that humans have.

The video was produced by Ryan Loew, with additional footage from Nick Childers, for PublicSource. Loew can be reached at ryan@publicsource.org

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

Our Reporters Want To Hear Your Ohio River Questions Thursday, Nov 14 2019 

Text “OHIO” to 859-208-2408 to share with our seven-newsroom collaborative.

KyCIR is teaming up with six other news organizations to cover what might be the most under-appreciated water asset in the country: the Ohio River. The Ohio River provides drinking water for 5 million people, and it’s a thoroughfare of business, supporting jobs and communities. But it’s also among the most polluted rivers in the country.

The project “Good River: Stories of the Ohio” will delve into the past, present and future of this river and its region. We aim to inform and surprise you at the same time. Our journalism will share with you the beauty of the Ohio River and its watershed as well as the threats to water quality and wildlife.

You can help our coalition of seven newsrooms tell stories that envision a better future for the Ohio.

The project will launch Nov. 14, but you can start participating now!

Introducing, Good River texts. Here’s how it works:

  1. Text “OHIO” to 859-208-2408. (Note that standard message rates apply and you can opt out anytime by texting STOP.)
  2. Follow the prompts to introduce yourself to us.
  3. Share your story, tip, concern, question or photo with us.
  4. We’ll text you with questions and information in return. (You can opt out easily if you find you’re flooded with info.)
  5. Thanks!

The post Our Reporters Want To Hear Your Ohio River Questions appeared first on Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting.

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