In Louisville, Kentucky, the Ohio River has something of an image problem. It seems like everything imaginable has ended up in the river at one time or another. There are the usual suspects like plastic bottles, Styrofoam coolers and tires. There are the byproducts of cities and industries: sewage, landfill juice and industrial waste. And then there are the things that seem almost uniquely Kentucky like coal ash and bourbon.
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.
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the opportunity for more greenspace and makes it more likely that rainwater would be absorbed rather than entering the outdated infrastructure.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.
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.
ByJeffrey Boggess, Ariel Cifala, Bijan Fandey, Shae McClain and Mark Schoenster |
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.
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.
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.