Plugging the myriad orphaned oil and gas wells around Ohio costs, on average, more than $110,000 per well, according to a new analysis of Department of Natural Resources data. The research was pulled from contracts the state awarded in 2019 by the ARO Working Group, a network that studies the decommissioning of oil assets and is affiliated with environmental group Earthworks. Compared with Ohio’s actual cleanup costs, operators are only required to put up a fund, called a bond, of $5,000 per well or $15,000 for all of their wells. This money, a fraction of the true price tag, is returned to operators once they plug their wells, which is meant as an incentive to do so. “My big concern is that the business models here in Ohio are premised on cheap water, cheap waste and cheap landscape change,” said Ted Auch, the Great Lakes program coordinator at environmental group FracTracker Alliance.
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.
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.
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.
The Cheat River courses through one of the largest undammed watersheds in the eastern United States. The river forms from tributaries high in the Allegheny Mountains of eastern West Virginia and flows northward to meet with the Monongahela River just before crossing into southwestern Pennsylvania. From there, the Mon joins the Allegheny River to form the Ohio River. The Ohio River is a drinking water source for five million people, and 25 million people in Appalachia and the Midwest live within its watershed.
The Cheat River has a storied history. Not so long ago, the river ran orange for miles at a time from acid mine drainage, but revitalization efforts have brought the waters back to life, both literally and figuratively.
Every September, tourists flock to historic Marietta, along the banks of the Ohio River, for a celebration that harkens back to the Ohio Valley’s early days.
The 44th annual Ohio River Sternwheel Festival held this year attracted an estimated 30,000 visitors to the small southeastern Ohio city. The streets buzzed with activity as vendors sold popcorn, french fries and locally made sandwiches.
More than 100 people sat along the riverbank on lawn chairs and blankets in the grass, looking out at a docked barge, where civic leaders hailed the opening of festivities. “We’re going to have great weather this whole weekend, and we’re so excited,” said Cindy Hall, who volunteered to lead the event.
Standing at the riverfront plaza, Hall talked with Carrie Ankrom, president of the Marietta Chamber of Commerce about how the festival benefits local businesses. Carrie Ankrom, president of the Marietta Chamber of Commerce, says attracting tourists to events like the Sternwheel Festival is helping to revitalize the city’s downtown. (Photo by Julie Grant/The Allegheny Front)
“It sells out the hotel rooms, the campsites,” Ankrom said.
By April Johnston
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.
The water is cleaner but the politics are messier: A look back at the Clean Water Act movement after 50 years
This is first in our Good River: Stories of the Ohio Series
In June 1969, a Time Magazine article garnered national attention when it brought to light the water quality conditions in Ohio: a river had literally caught fire.
Oil-soaked debris ignited after sparks, likely from a passing train, set the slick ablaze. Local media actually didn’t spend much time reporting on the fire. This was, after all, at least the 13th time a waterway had been set ablaze in Ohio alone, not to mention river fires in Philadelphia, Baltimore and other industrial cities. Time Magazine didn’t even run pictures of this specific fire. Instead, they used stock photos of another fire that happened in the same area in 1957.
But America in 1969 had had enough with dangerous rivers.
Scientists, Regulators and Industry Representatives Debate if Ballast Water Treatment is an Option
More than $375 billion in cargo — iron ore, coal, cement, stone, grain and more — has flowed between Great Lakes ports and foreign nations since 1959. That’s when Queen Elizabeth and U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower christened the St. Lawrence Seaway, heralding it as an engineering marvel.
But that series of locks, dams and channels connecting the Great Lakes to the Atlantic Ocean also carved a pathway for foreign plants and animals to wreak billions of dollars in ecological damage to the lakes. At least 80 invasive species have arrived in the ballast water transatlantic ships take in and discharge for balance.
The round goby, which came from the Black and Caspian seas in the 1990s, gobbles up food some native fish depend upon. So do European zebra and quagga mussels, which also damage docks and boats and clog pipes and machinery, costing the Great Lakes region an estimated $500 million each year.
GIBRALTAR ISLAND, Ohio — Four years ago, Lake Erie algae wreaked havoc on the Toledo water system, affecting 400,000 residents in Ohio and Southeast Michigan. Known as harmful algal blooms, the deep green ooze grows by the mile each year, fed by phosphorus-rich runoff from farm fields. Though not always toxic, the eyesores gunk up beaches, choke marine life, and became far more serious in August 2014. That’s when Toledo’s water system sucked up cyanobacteria (known as blue-green algae, though it’s technically not algae) and contaminated drinking water with microcystin, a toxin that can cause liver and kidney damage. The scare prompted residents to rely on bottled water for three days and cost about $65 million, mostly in lost tax revenue and tourism.
Ohio ratepayers have paid FirstEnergy’s utilities roughly a quarter of a billion dollars since January 2017 under a distribution modernization rider. Now, critics say FirstEnergy is stalling on saying just what it’s doing with that money, which regulators approved without any requirements that it pay for specific projects. The mandate for consumers to pay the rider is currently on appeal before the Supreme Court of Ohio. Meanwhile, FirstEnergy’s utilities have been collecting the $168 million per year, and regulators could renew the charge for another two years after 2019. “To date, FirstEnergy has stymied the efforts of the state-designated advocate of its consumers to discover information about its subsidy charges,” Ohio Consumers’ Counsel Bruce Weston and assistant counsel Zachary Woltz said in a July 13 brief.