Toxic Mercury Remediation in the Ohio River Hampered by Complicated Cleanup

Mercury flows through industrial wastewater into the Ohio River, and damages young brains. But the multi-state agency tasked with keeping the waterway clean hasn’t tightened controls on this pollution because it doesn’t have the authority to do so. While coal-fired power plants, chemical manufacturers and other facilities along the Ohio River are piping mercury directly into the river and there’s a permitting process to regulate that, the more significant source appears to be mercury blown into the atmosphere from smokestacks — both locally and across the globe from mining, energy and other industries. The mercury eventually settles on land and flows into water. Figuring out how much of the toxin is coming from local industries or wind currents remains a challenge.

Ohio River rises: The minds behind Louisville’s riverfront revival

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.

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.

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.

360-degree video interactive: A journey to revitalization on an Ohio River tributary

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.

‘That’s vinegar’: The Ohio River’s history of contamination and progress made

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.