Fighting For The Ohio River Watershed’s Mussels Tuesday, Jan 7 2020 

“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.

Carrie Blackmore Smith/PublicSource

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.

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.

“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.

Erica Peterson

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.

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

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.

Carrie Blackmore Smith/PublicSource

Mussels are being raised at the Thomas More University Biology Field Station on the Ohio River near Cincinnati.

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 the 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.

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.”

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.

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.

Carrie Blackmore Smith/PublicSource

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.

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.

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.

 

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.

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.

What The Petrochemical Buildout Along The Ohio River Means For Regional Communities And Beyond Saturday, Dec 14 2019 

The R.E. Burger coal-fired power plant’s final day ended, appropriately enough, in a cloud of black smoke and dust. From 1944 to 2011, the plant generated power, fumes and ash in the Ohio River Valley. It was one of dozens of coal and steel plants dotting the banks of the river, which for years has ranked among the nation’s most heavily polluted.

Then, on July 29, 2016, following a series of detonations that echoed across the Ohio, the boiler house at the base of the smokestack crumpled amid flickers of flame. The 854-foot-tall tower toppled sideways, struck ground and sent up puffs of dirt and brick. In footage posted online, the noise is drowned out by the sound of whooping and applause from thousands of people who’d gathered in lawn chairs along the riverbanks to watch.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘That’s Vinegar’: The Ohio River’s History Of Contamination And Progress Friday, Nov 15 2019 

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

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

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

One fish.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It Started With A Slurry

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

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

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

Curren Sheldon/100 Days in Appalachia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Great Irony

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

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

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

Curren Sheldon/100 Days in Appalachia

A creek (left) contaminated with acid mine drainage flows past a local rural road while the Carbondale doser (right) works to neutralize some of the acidity before it reaches local streams.

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

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

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

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

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

Curren Sheldon/100 Days in Appalachia

Jen Bowman, the director of environmental programs for Ohio University’s Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs, has been working on acid mine drainage abatement since her days as a graduate student.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Common Sense And Willingness

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

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

It was the second bloom in the month of September. The first erupted near Huntington, West Virginia, and grew 50 miles long before dissipating, according to Greg Youngstrom, an environmental scientist and harmful algae bloom expert at ORSANCO.

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

“Prior to 2015, everyone thought algae blooms were a lake problem,” Youngstrom said.

Alexandra Kanik | wfpl.org

Algae on the Ohio River near California, Kentucky, on Oct. 7. It was later identified as Microcystis, the genus of cyanobacteria that causes harmful algal blooms.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Text Good River: Our Reporters Want To Hear Your Ohio River Stories And Concerns Friday, Nov 1 2019 

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

WFPL 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 five 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.

Alexandra Kanik | wfpl.org

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 — PublicSource, Allegheny Front, 100 Days in Appalachia, Louisville Public Media, The Ohio Center for Investigative Journalism, Belt Magazine, and Environmental Health News — tell stories that envision a better future for the Ohio.

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

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!