Clean Water Wanted: Contaminated Wells And The Legacy Of Fossil Fuel Extraction Monday, Mar 2 2020 

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“You seen that one with the tombstone up there?” seven-year-old Timothy Easterling asks, looking toward the grass just uphill from his home. “That’s my papaw.” 

Timothy’s grandfather Chet Blankenship died in 2016, at age 69. Blankenship lived on land he and his family have long owned at the end of a road atop Bradshaw Mountain in McDowell County, West Virginia. His hand-painted tombstone sits in the grassy patch above the family homes.

Blankenship’s daughter Melissa Easterling now lives in the house next door with her husband, Chauncy Easterling, who grew up on a nearby ridge. They live together with their son Timothy, and usually one or two foster children.

Chet Blankenship died from kidney failure soon after his family started noticing odd colors and smells in their well water. After he died, they got their water tested, and learned that arsenic was among the contaminants that had seeped into their well. The National Institutes of Health links high arsenic exposure to a range of kidney diseases.   

The family can’t prove that the arsenic in the water caused Blankenship’s death, and they can’t get firm answers about the contamination in their well and the mining and drilling activity that surrounds their property. But Timothy’s memories of his grandfather reflect the family’s anxiety about the water they depend on.

“One time Chet used it and then he got so sick he just gave up and died, didn’t he?” he asked his mother.

Melissa gently corrected him. “Honey, he didn’t give up. It just — he had to go.”

Timothy thought for a moment, then quietly chimed back in, “He used to be my papaw.” 

Benny Becker | Ohio Valley ReSource

The Easterling family, Chauncy, Melissa and Timothy, in their living room.

The Easterlings live in the central Appalachian coalfields and much of the land has been mined for miles in every direction. Water runs through the collapsed network of former mines, which may house industrial waste, as well as byproducts from the gas wells that tapped into the methane associated with coal seams. 

There are many possible sources of contamination but the family doesn’t know which company might be to blame, or how to hold one accountable to fix the problem, or at least pay for them to get connected to a clean water system. State environmental officials deny there is any evidence connecting the bad water to the mining or drilling nearby. Adding to the family’s frustration, they’ve been asking for a connection to the nearby public water system for years, only to hear that there’s not enough money.

For decades, public water systems in the US have been consistently underfunded, affecting both water access and water quality. EPA records show that in Kentucky, Ohio, and West Virginia alone, there have been more than 130,000 violations reported in the last twenty years. At least 2,000 systems have tested positive for contaminants since 2012. Those statistics only cover people connected to public water systems. 

Nationwide, another thirteen million people draw from private wells, and two million people don’t have a reliable source of running water. In areas affected by extraction industry, such as McDowell County, many wells and springs that rural residents are used to relying on are now running dry or showing unsafe levels of contaminants like arsenic and lead. 

Struggling for Water 

When their water issues started, Chauncy and Melissa contacted the county health department to get their water tested. On seeing the family’s dark brown water, the department referred the family to the state’s Department of Environmental Protection for more advanced testing. The family also had testing done by Appalachian Voices, a nonprofit environmental advocacy group that has been drawing attention to people living with contaminated water. Those tests revealed unsafe levels of arsenic and lead, among other contaminants. 

Chauncy and Melissa, together with Willie Dodson of Appalachian Voices, also tested water sources within a few miles of their house. They say they’re yet to find a water source that they trust. The most alarming reading came at a gas well that was drilled into a shallow section of a giant underground mine. It sits right beside the creek that’s below the Easterlings’ home. 

Animation by Ariana Martinez

Residents tried to cap an abandoned well with stones.

That sample showed levels of lead and arsenic even higher than what had shown up in the Easterlings’ well water, along with other contaminants. 

Just downstream from that sample site, water from the mine had broken out of the hillside and was flowing into the creek with an oily sheen that left the creek a dingy shade of orange. 

More rounds of testing followed, including by scientists from Virginia Tech. The Easterlings say one official told them he suspected coal slurry, a toxic waste product from coal preparation, was the main contaminant, but never gave them any formal documents or test results. 

Animation by Ariana Martinez

The Easterlings knew there were problems when the water ran brown.

Official comment and documents from the DEP say that there was “no indication that the well was impacted … by mining activity,” because both of the neighboring mines on record were deeper than the bottom of the well. The Easterlings believe that mines and gas wells exist far beyond what’s shown on the records. 

The family can sometimes gather enough water from rainfall, using a system Chauncy put together to collect runoff from their roof into a cistern. When there’s a dry spell, Chauncy hauls water, towing a 250 gallon tank behind his pickup truck. Filling and hauling the tank costs the family around $200, and the water is only good for washing and flushing toilets, not for drinking.  Since Chauncy works full time, they’ll sometimes have to wait for a weekend before he can fetch water. In the meantime, they have to make do without bathing and doing laundry. 

Benny Becker | Ohio Valley ReSource

The Easterlings with the water collection system they built.

Some of their neighbors, particularly those who are elderly and on fixed incomes, aren’t able to install a rain collection system or haul water. That leaves many of those already in the hardest situations with no alternative to using contaminated water from their wells and springs. 

Linda McKinney runs the main food pantry that serves McDowell County. She says that all of the families served are drinking water from unsafe sources. She also sees kidney and liver issues far too often among those families. 

The pantry provides bottled drinking water along with food, but they’re not able to fully meet the families’ needs. The food pantry recently received a donation of hydro-panels, which use solar energy to condense water moisture from the air. McKinney hopes that will help narrow the gap between what her team is able to provide and the need for clean water among the families they serve. 

Widespread Issue

I’ve reported on water issues since 2016, mainly in the central Appalachian coalfields. The most glaring water problem I covered was in Martin County, Kentucky, where residents complained about possible exposure to health risks due to extremely leaky pipes and a lack of communication around water outages. 

Martin County’s many-layered water problems started to get national attention and significant outside funding. But the $5 million now heading for Martin County is a drop in the bucket compared to the more than $600 million in water infrastructure needs that exist just in Appalachian Kentucky, according to a study from the Kentucky Infrastructure Authority. That includes $28 million for Letcher County, where I live, and where a third of the residents have no option for connecting to a public water system, according to the same study. 

The federal government estimates that $472 billion in water investments are needed across the country in the next twenty years. If you break that down to one year, it’s a bit over $23 billion. 

In recent history, the most the federal government has allocated toward water system infrastructure was $7.7 billion in 2009, as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Every other year since at least 1995, the amount has been less than $3 billion, even though the government’s own assessments have always shown an average annual need of at least $12 billion.

In reporting on Martin County I spoke repeatedly with Nina McCoy, a retired science teacher who, together with her husband Mickey, has played a prominent role in water testing and advocating for local water protection since at least 2000. That’s when a coal slurry impoundment broke through an underground mine shaft and sent a flood of sludge roaring down multiple creeks in Martin County, poisoning miles of streams.

McCoy says that in recent years, she’s seen a shift in local thinking and national awareness. She recalls that when neighbors without water in Martin County first saw TV coverage of the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, “It was like, oh my gosh, there are other people who have water problems.” 

McCoy now believes that any real solution will have to come from solidarity among communities whose water has been impacted. “We all need to get together on this, because this is a problem nationwide.”

Benny Becker | Ohio Valley ReSource

Nina and Mickey McCoy outside their restaurant in Inez, KY.

The kinds and causes of America’s drinking water crises are widely varied, but extractive industry is a common thread. On a reporting trip to a coal mining region of the Navajo Nation, near Black Mesa, Arizona, I learned that while rain has long been scarce in the area, there used to be reliable sources of groundwater. Windmill-powered water wells dot the landscape, but many of them have run dry. Since coal mines opened on Black Mesa and started using large amounts of water to pump coal to a power plant, many wells and springs have run dry. 

The mines and power plant recently closed, but it will still take years for the groundwater to recharge. In the meantime, rural residents have to pay to haul water from a well in town that taps into a deeper layer of groundwater. That water can be used for crops and livestock but not for human consumption. Drinking water has to be bought or brought in from elsewhere. 

Nicole Horseherder is a resident of Black Mesa and founder of the community organization Tó Nizhóní Ání, which translates roughly to “clean water speaks.” She has seen the springs on her land dry up, making it harder and more expensive to keep livestock. Her fears though are mainly for the future.  

“What’s going to be here in 20 years?” she asked. “If it’s not going to be here and it’s a life-giving element, there’s going to be no life here.” 

Benny Becker | Ohio Valley ReSource

Residents of Black Mesa, AZ, wait to fill water tanks.

Watershed Moments

Many residents in affected communities feel there’s a special injustice to situations like these, where clean water hadn’t been a problem until extractive industries took a toll. 

Melissa Easterling said that growing up in McDowell County, good water was plentiful. High tables of clear groundwater flowed from abundant springs and streams. Her family and neighbors didn’t need to worry about water infrastructure. She suspects that as the used-up mines were allowed to flood, the water table sank. And now, she fears, the residue of coal and gas extraction seems to have left the water contaminated. 

The Easterlings live at the end of Emerald Ridge. Looking south, the next ridgeline marks the state line with Virginia. To the north, down below, is a wooded valley carved by Panther Creek. The creek flows on into Tug Fork of the Big Sandy River, which marks the state line with Kentucky.

Benny Becker | Ohio Valley ReSource

The wooded hills along Panther Creek.

The area surrounding Panther Creek was long known as Panther State Forest and is now a wildlife management area meant for hunting and fishing. Chauncy says it was once an extremely popular fishing spot, but he and other locals have long stopped going there because of contamination fears.

Staff at Panther WMA say that water wells in the park are tested regularly, and haven’t shown any excessive levels of contaminants. They still stock the creek for fishing, and grow gardens to attract deer for hunters. The park still feels wild and healthy, though you’re likely to come across more gas wells and pipelines than other visitors.

Looking downstream from where dirty mine water flows into the creek, Chauncy lamented what’s been lost. “We used to drink the water out of that creek. Now you can’t do it. It’s contaminated.”

Benny Becker | Ohio Valley ReSource

Chauncy Easterling watches murky water seep into a stream feeding into Panther Creek.

He worries for the future. “God knows our children’s children won’t be able to swim in that creek or play in that creek or fish in that creek.” 

Water System Woes

The McDowell County water system has a line that runs up Bradshaw Mountain, and it reaches some of the families whose wells have dried up or been contaminated, but it stops a mile short of the Easterlings’ home. The family has been trying to get connected for eight years, but there’s still no money for the project, which would take years more to complete even once funding is found. 

Much of the water infrastructure in McDowell County was installed by coal companies for their workers when the industry was booming. But coal production has been declining in McDowell County since the 1940’s. Many water systems were abandoned as the mines closed, and were then neglected for decades. 

A county-wide public service district was created to take over the systems with the intention to maintain, update, and expand them. The problem is, there hasn’t been enough money. Federal funding, once provided through grants, was largely converted to loans. The McDowell PSD now has $34,000 in monthly debt payments and can’t afford to take more loans, according to General Manager Mavis Brewster. 

“You don’t want to keep raising rates,” Brewster said. “A lot of the residents in McDowell County are elderly, they’re on fixed incomes, and water’s a basic need. You have to have that.” 

Benny Becker | Ohio Valley ReSource

Mavis Brewster, General Manager of the McDowell County Public Service District.

Brewster said the PSD has some momentum toward expanding water services in the county. They’ve cobbled together what they can from state and federal agencies, but there’s nowhere near enough funding to meet their needs.  

Top priorities for construction this spring are for the towns of Keystone and Coalwood.

In Keystone, the risk of bacterial contamination is high enough that since 2012 residents have been under a continual advisory to boil their water for safety. Coalwood, where the PSD is located, is slated to be the first area covered by a new sewage treatment system. Three towns in McDowell County — Welch, War, and Bradshaw — have their own sewage treatment systems, but none of the 3,300 customers served by McDowell PSD have sewer service. 

Brewster says some of the communities have pipes that collect sewage but then send it straight into the nearest river or creek. That’s been the situation in Coalwood, but even that system has deteriorated further since the coal company that built it pulled out and stopped maintaining it. The collection network has issues with clogging and backing up, flooding homes with sewage. 

Neighbors in Need

Chauncy and Melissa have been asking questions of old timers among their neighbors, with special interest in ones who’d worked in the mine below their water table. Among them, Chauncy recounted, were at least a couple who have since died, and who said they never would have worked in that mine if they’d known it could poison their own water. 

One neighbor whose water contains high levels of lead and arsenic is suing a coal company, and also fighting to get any damages covered by her homeowners insurance. She’s shared photos of severe rashes and chemical burns that she claims came from exposure to the water. 

Chauncy and Melissa say they wish they knew who they could sue, but there are too many companies involved in the mines and gas wells around them to know who to hold accountable, especially since many of the operations have complicated corporate histories. 

Outside Owners

Chauncy Easterling says it’s his understanding that most of the people who own the local coal and gas operations live in distant cities. “Chicago, New York, places like that,” he explains. “I’d like to see them come in here and clean it up. I’d say they ain’t even rich enough to fix what damage has already been done.”

He said those same companies often own the land that many many of his neighbors rent, which is one reason that many are afraid to speak out. People are worried that they’ll get evicted or have their property condemned. 

Benny Becker | Ohio Valley ReSource

Gas infrastructure is common in Panther Wildlife Management Area.

These concerns about absentee land ownership are woven into the roots of many of the region’s problems.

In 1979, teams of academics, community organizations, and local individuals across Appalachia worked together to conduct a land ownership study. Large landowners were assessed in eighty counties across six states. The study revealed high proportions of absentee corporate owners, often paying low tax rates on their holdings.

In McDowell County, for example, more than three-quarters of the land and more than 90% of the mineral rights were held by absentee owners at the time. The five largest owners included a range of timber and mining companies, all based in other states. 

A new land study is currently in development, and organizers are seeking funding to do an updated survey of land and mineral ownership in Appalachia. 

Based on what records are available, it seems the overall picture has stayed the same. Outside companies own large amounts of Appalachia’s land and resources. The business model is extractive not just in taking fossil fuels out of the ground, but also in taking wealth away from the region. 

With little local control over the land, widely depleted sources of natural wealth, a range of work and environment related health issues, it’s no wonder that so many Appalachian communities are struggling to build new economies and keep themselves afloat.

Funding Prospects

President Donald J. Trump campaigned with promises of major infrastructure spending, and the White House has frequently touted “Infrastructure Week” initiatives. But so far those have not resulted in major new projects or funding. The topic has since faded from prominence among the president’s talking points. 

Prominent Democrats have called for a “Green New Deal” to include massive infrastructure spending, including on water systems. The Green New Deal bill introduced by New York Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez last year would “guarantee universal access to clean water,” but some fellow Democrats question the bill’s costs and the legislation faces stiff Republican opposition.

More immediately, coalfield communities have been focused on getting funding from the federal Abandoned Mine Land Fund, which is supported by a fee on coal companies and used to fix damages caused before enactment of the Surface Mining Control and Regulation Act. 

A bipartisan proposal known as the RECLAIM Act would speed the rate of spending that AML money and expand the scope of funding to include projects like water infrastructure that can help communities and their economies. A few pilot projects following a similar model have been included in recent federal budgets. 

What’s Underground

The Easterlings say they’ve never sold their mineral rights, so no mining company should have had the right to mine beneath their home. But core samples drilled deep from the earth show that the coal had been mined underneath them anyway. The family somewhat expected this, having seen dishes fall out of the cabinet from shakes and jolts when, they presume, pillars were being pulled in a mineshaft below them, allowing the cavity to collapse. Chauncy says this kind of “robbing coal” is commonplace. “It’s underground. It’s out of sight, out of mind.”

The collapsed coal seams have been punctured by gas wells. No one knows what’s still in the old mine voids. From scouting around the mine entrances and talking to friends who used to work in the mines, Chauncy and Melissa have come to believe it’s likely that heavy equipment, batteries, and other industrial trash was left behind in the mine. They’re also concerned that refuse from a coal washing plant — a dark toxic sludge known as slurry — might have been pumped into the abandoned mine, which is a common practice for disposing of the waste. There’s no official record of slurry being injected in the area, but the Easterlings have heard that the mine below them was used for dumping by a nearby coal washing plant. 

Benny Becker | Ohio Valley ReSource

Chet Blankenship was buried in the lawn beside his home.

There have also been dozens of gas wells drilled near this web of mines. Some older gas wells don’t show up on official maps because they were not properly permitted or have no identifiable owner. 

Some of the wells in the area are from conventional drilling but records show others used fracking, which pumps water and chemicals into the ground, opening up cracks from which gas can be drawn. 

Once a well stops producing it is supposed to be sealed. But at least some of the older wells around the Easterlings were left unplugged, with just an abandoned pipe sticking out of the ground. 

Benny Becker | Ohio Valley ReSource

Chauncy Easterling looks into an abandoned gas well.

The Easterlings say that their water started to change soon after nearby gas wells were shut down. At first the water started to smell, then little bits of dark rock dust appeared, and then before long it was running dark brown.

Chauncy worked for years as a miner and then as a boss in underground coal mines. He says it wasn’t unusual for the mine to run into an area that had already been mined even though it was outside any other mine’s permit boundary. 

Once, he said, a crew working under him cut into a gas well which hadn’t been on any of their maps. He and Melissa both remember that as a terrifying time. But shades of fear color much of Chauncy’s memories of working underground. Coal miners get paid not just to produce coal, but to regularly put themselves in danger. 

Given today’s record rates of severe black lung disease, it’s no exaggeration to say Chauncy and other miners have been getting paid to accept that their lungs will likely get scarred by coal and rock dust. 

Chauncy took a buyout offer in 2013, partly because his health and breathing had started to noticeably decline. The buyout came with six months of severance pay, which he used to get certified as a commercial truck driver. He’s applied for black lung compensation, but was told it may be five years before he’d start receiving any benefits. 

Chauncy got out of the mines, but he and his family still fear for their health. Their home is surrounded by remnants of fossil fuel extraction and the lasting legacy of environmental degradation.  

This story was made possible with funding from the Abrams Foundation, the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University, and the Solutions Journalism Network.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

EPA Proposes Changes To Federal Coal Ash, Wastewater Rules Tuesday, Nov 5 2019 

Federal environmental regulators have released proposed changes to two rules related to the disposal of coal ash and wastewater from coal-fired power plants.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Monday announced its third round of changes to its 2015 rule regulating coal ash. Coal ash is one of the largest waste streams in the country and often contains toxic compounds like arsenic, lead, and radium. Dozens of the waste sites dot the Ohio Valley, often along rivers.

The Obama-era regulation requires utilities to conduct groundwater monitoring at ponds and landfills, close leaking ash ponds and clean up polluted groundwater.

Last year, the Trump administration extended the closure deadline through October 2020. Now, it’s proposing to move the deadline two months sooner, in part to address legal challenges surrounding the rule.

The rule also lays out a series of provisions that would allow coal ash sites to remain open longer, including if the nearby coal-fired power plant is scheduled to close. Sites can also request a closure extension if the plant needs time to figure out how to dispose of other waste being placed into coal ash sites.

“At first glance they’re like, ‘oh, it used to be October. Now it’s August — that’s better,’” said Larissa Liebmann, an attorney with Waterkeeper Alliance, an environmental watchdog group. “But then they’ve created all these alternatives, which give them this extra time based on various issues.”

The toxic residue from burning coal is a major concern in the Ohio Valley. An analysis by the ReSource and partner station WFPL found nearly every power plant covered under the EPA rules had coal ash waste sites with evidence of contaminated groundwater. At several sites, hazardous compounds are found in groundwater at levels that far exceed federal drinking water standards.

That mirrors data collected on a national level. An analysis of data collected under the 2015 coal ash rule, released this year by environmental groups, found more than 90 percent of the nation’s regulated coal ash repositories are leaking unsafe levels of toxic chemicals into nearby groundwater, including ash sites at more than 30 coal-fired power plants in the Ohio Valley.

Effluent Rule

The EPA is also proposing changes to another 2015 rule that regulates water discharged from power plants, also known as effluent.

The Steam Electric Power Plant Effluent Guidelines Rule set federal limits on the levels of toxic metals in wastewater that can be discharged from power plants. The rule required affected plants to install technology to reduce discharge.

Similar to the coal ash regulation, the wastewater rule was also embroiled in legal challenges.

In its proposed updates, the EPA is relaxing some pollution limits and extending the compliance deadline by two years. In exchange, the agency is promoting its voluntary incentives program.

In a press release, EPA said the new effluent rule would achieve greater pollution reductions than the 2015 rule, at a lower cost.

Environmental groups disagree and argue the rule change will instead expose millions of people to toxic pollution.

“Not only does [EPA Administrator Andrew] Wheeler’s proposal eliminate some of the strongest pollution limits required by the 2015 rule, it carves out new polluter loopholes for the industry,” Jennifer Peters, with Clean Water Action, said in a statement. “Wheeler’s proposal also claims that power plants will voluntarily adopt new, stricter standards, despite the fact that a similar program existed in the 2015 rule, and virtually no coal plants adopted it.”

Edison Electric Institute, which represents investor-owned utilities, praised EPA’s efforts to rewrite the effluent rule.

Bourbon And Dead Fish Nearly Polluted This Ky. County’s Water Supply Wednesday, Jul 17 2019 

As nearly 10,000 people descended on the small town of Owenton, Kentucky, for the annual county fair earlier this month, so too did the miles-long bourbon plume leftover from the fire at the Jim Beam warehouse upriver from the drinking water supply.

In the wake of the bourbon spill, thousands of fish died as dissolved oxygen levels plummeted in the Kentucky River.

But when Owen County residents turned on their taps, nothing but cool clean water came out.

Lightning struck the Jim Beam warehouse two days before July 4 setting aflame 45,000 barrels of bourbon and sending alcohol and ash into nearby waterways.

The next day, Owen County Judge Executive Casey Ellis received a call from Kentucky American Water.

“The morning after the incident I received a call,” Ellis said. “She was just giving us an update on what happened and what might happen.”

The plume reached Frankfort first. There, residents reported drinking water tainted with foul odors, though state officials reassured locals the supply was safe to drink.

That lead time gave Kentucky American Water enough time to consider its  options. Utility officials decided to seal off the intake on the Kentucky River, said Susan Lancho, spokeswoman.

“And so basically what we were able to do was turn off the treatment plant located right there on the Owen County line and wait for that plume to pass and so none of the water from the fire ever entered our plant,” she said.

The Owenton Water Treatment Plant sat idle for about three days as the bourbon plume passed through on its way to the Ohio River, Lancho said.

In the meantime, Owenton arranged for water delivery with emergency management.

“You know, we were just worried about the supply here,” Ellis said.

Fortunately, that was an unnecessary precaution.

Kentucky American Water reversed the flow on a 31-mile-long pipe that stretches from Owen County to a central distribution system in the Lexington/Fayette County area.

It just so happens Owenton sits at a lower elevation than Lexington. Ordinarily, that means the treatment plant pumps water uphill, but this time gravity took its course.

“Since it was gravity fed all they had to do was bypass the pumps,” said Terry Humphries, environmental engineering supervisor at the Energy and Environment Cabinet’s Division of Water.

The 3,700 Kentucky American Water customers of Owenton and all those who arrived for the county fair’s popular demolition derby were none the wiser.

“Our focus is maintaining great quality water service for our customers and that’s what we were able to do,” Lancho said.