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.

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.

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.

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

‘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.