Rising waters: Aging levees, climate change and the challenge to hold back the Ohio River

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. 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.

Ohio River community bands together to slow runoff and add greenspace

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the opportunity for more greenspace and makes it more likely that rainwater would be absorbed rather than entering the outdated infrastructure.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.

How Have Deregulation and Extra Fees Affected Your Energy Bill?

This calculator provides cost and/or savings estimates of how much money you may have paid (or saved) each month following retail electric deregulation. It’s based on data shared with Eye on Ohio and the Energy News Network from a study that looked at how extra fees and more competition have impacted utility bills. (Note, however, that it doesn’t account for the expected costs of House Bill 6, passed in July 2019.)

What’s a cross-subsidy effect? A cross-subsidy exists when one group pays a higher cost in order to allow another group to pay less. 

Two types of cross subsidies appear on Ohio electric bills. The first type (Type I) is when residential or commercial customers pay a higher rate (cents/KWh) than industrial customers (e.g., Amazon or Honda). 

The second type (Type II) of cross-subsidy is when non-regulated utility costs are passed through to regulated customers.

Investigation: Blacks, black neighborhoods most likely to be traffic stop targets in Ohio’s 3 biggest cities

Investigation: Blacks, black neighborhoods most likely to be traffic stop targets in Ohio’s 3 biggest cities

By Max Londberg and Lucia Walinchus

Video by Michael Nyerges

Reporters from the nonprofit newsroom Eye on Ohio, The Cincinnati Enquirer and researchers from Stanford University’s Big Local News program examined police stops to assess how the three largest communities in Ohio use public safety resources and to identify potential bias in policing. Followed in a public park and forced to leave. Cuffed and questioned for whistling while waiting for a bus. Pulled over for spending too much time at a gas station. Some black drivers and pedestrians in Cincinnati say they’ve been unfairly stopped and questioned by police. 

“It seems to be if you are a minority, you’re a target and you’re automatically doing something wrong,” said Michelle Cameron, a black resident who lives in the Cincinnati neighborhood of Westwood.

Sidebar: Can an officer's perception of you alter your ticket? Biracial man's 'white' tickets dismissed, 'black' tickets sustained

Reporters from the nonprofit newsroom Eye on Ohio, The Cincinnati Enquirer and researchers from Stanford University’s Big Local News program examined police stops to assess how the three largest communities in Ohio use public safety resources and to identify possible bias in policing. Jermiah Miller, a biracial man with self-described pale skin, said he feels like he has a foot in two worlds: one in which cops view him as white, the other as black. He believes he’s treated better when he’s perceived to be white. Miller, 26, was ticketed for driving with a suspended license and other charges four times last year. Twice cops listed his race as white, and twice as black. 

In the two instances in which he was listed as white, Miller’s charges were ultimately dismissed, according to court records.

Ever hear of a nurdle? This new form of pollution could be coming to the Ohio River

When the petrochemical plant being built by Shell Chemical Appalachia in Beaver County 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.

Fighting pollution and apathy on the Lower Ohio

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.

What the petrochemical buildout along the Ohio River means for regional communities and beyond

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.