IN PHOTOS: Life on the Ohio River

For decades, the Ohio River was the poster child for a “working” river. But that portrait of the Ohio is changing. Where industry once dominated the landscape, boaters, fisherman and others turning to the river for recreation are becoming a bigger part of the picture—even as the region still struggles with a legacy of industrial pollution. Photojournalist Kara Lofton documented some of these varied—and sometimes competing—forces that are shaping life on the Ohio River today.

 

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Tim Reddinger casts a line on the Ohio River in Beaver, Pennsylvania. Reddinger has lived along the Ohio River his entire life, working for most of his career in the steel mills that once lined the riverfront. As a child, Reddinger would come to this very spot with friends and sit on some of the driftwood still visible along the shore. Fifty years ago, the water was so dirty the kids would have to flick oil off their lines before recasting them in the water. “We didn’t know any better,” he says. “We would just watch the colors swirl and glisten in the receding light.” When asked if he was concerned about health implications of being exposed to toxins in the water from an early age, he said, “Every day. I’m 59 now and I’ll count myself lucky if I make it 10 to 15 more years.”

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Trash decorates the shoreline just beyond Reddinger’s old fishing spot. While the water is undoubtedly cleaner since he was a child, trash can still be seen up and down the banks on either side of the river.

Water swirls in the grit remover at the West Virginia American Water Treatment Plant in Huntington, West Virginia. In it, heavier particles of sand and debris fall to the bottom of the huge container while clean water cascades onto the next step of the process. The water here is drawn from the Ohio River—just 100 meters to the north. The plant is one of more than 40 treatment facilities that get their drinking water from the Ohio. Filtering out contaminants is a constant balance. For example, if too much chlorine—a common chemical in water treatment—combines with organic materials in the water, you could create a toxin known as trihalomethanes. Use too little, and you could fail to kill harmful bacteria.

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The Ohio River is visible from the West Virginia American Water Treatment Plant in Huntington, West Virginia. In 1987, the plant moved its water intakes from the shore to the middle of the river as part of a routine intake replacement. During the 2015 algae bloom, the intakes took in less algae than they might have otherwise because the pipes are now located well under the surface of the water.

Three Rivers Waterkeeper Rob Walters plays with his dog Rio beside the Ohio River in Pittsburgh. As part of his job, Walters monitors the water quality of the Monongahela, Allegheny and Ohio Rivers and evaluates incidents of pollution, reviews permits and supports community education.

The sun sets over Neville Island in Pittsburgh. The 1,200-acre island has been home to more than 50 industries over the past 100 years, including steel and chemical plants. It has long had a reputation as a “toxic waste dump” and has struggled to overcome that image. A third of the island is considered “brownfields”—former industrial or commercial sites that have been contaminated with hazardous substances. Several plans are currently underway to beautify and revitalize the island.

The ALCOSAN wastewater treatment plant sits opposite Neville Island on the Ohio River. The Allegheny County Sanitary Authority (ALCOSAN) provides wastewater treatment services to 83 communities, including the City of Pittsburgh. The 59-acre treatment plant is one of the largest wastewater treatment facilities in the Ohio River Valley, processing up to 250 million gallons of wastewater daily. Recently, ALCOSAN began the largest public works project in the region’s history to address the issue of combined sewer overflows—events where stormwater overwhelms the system and causes a mix of sewage and stormwater to flow directly into the river. The project has an estimated budget of more than a billion dollars.

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Rachel King, stewardship coordinator for Friends of the Riverfront, paddles on the Ohio River near Pittsburgh’s North Side neighborhood. To her right is ALCOSAN’s wastewater treatment plant; to her left is Neville Island. As the river becomes cleaner, more residents are turning to the river as a source of recreation. Boating, rowing and fishing are becoming increasingly popular.

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In the past 25 years, several non-profit groups have begun revitalizing the riverfront up and down the Ohio. Paths like the one seen here are popular routes for commuters, athletes and tourists alike. One group, Friends of the Riverfront, has developed the Three Rivers Heritage Trail—a 24-mile urban rail-trail along the riverfronts of Allegheny County.

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A man and his dog let off a friend on a dock at Point Pleasant, West Virginia, before continuing on their way. Cleaner waters have made recreation on the Ohio popular, but combined sewer overflows and algae blooms are still a challenge.

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Early on a Sunday morning, trash floats just off Point State Park in Pittsburgh. The park is popular with families, runners and couples. While the river has gotten a lot cleaner over the past 50 years, storm water, littering and combined sewer overflows still impact recreation here.

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Ducks preen along the Allegheny River in Pittsburgh. As the Ohio and its tributaries become cleaner, wildlife and fish are returning to the waters.

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During the fall, rowers race behind the Pittsburgh River Rescue Crew. The River Rescue is a combined effort of the Bureau of Emergency Medical Services’ SCUBA Search & Rescue Team and the Bureau of Police River Patrol. The paramedics who staff the River Rescue Units are certified as Public Safety Divers and are responsible for surface and subsurface water rescue.

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Rowers participating in the Head of the Ohio Regatta wait in the early morning light for the start of their race. Over the course of two days, hundreds of rowers competed in the annual event.

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This story is part of our Headwaters series, which explores the environmental and economic importance of the Ohio River. Headwaters is funded by the Benedum Foundation and the Foundation for Pennsylvania Watersheds, and is produced in collaboration with West Virginia Public Broadcasting.