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Twenty five million people live in the Ohio River watershed, across 15 states. A group of journalists from 7 regional news outlets — including The Allegheny Front — got together earlier this year and asked, “Have you ever heard anyone identify as a resident of the Ohio River watershed?” The question helped frame a new reporting series about the environment, economy and the culture of the Ohio River watershed, called Good River

The Allegheny Front’s Kara Holsopple talked with Halle Stockton, managing editor of PublicSource in Pittsburgh, who is leading the project. (The transcript has been edited for clarity.)

LISTEN to their conversation

Kara Holsopple: The series is called Good River. Where does the name come from? 

Halle Stockton: Good River is derived from the translation of Ohio as Ohi:yo, in the languages spoken by Iroquois [Haudenosaunee] and Seneca tribes.  It pays homage to the origins of the Ohio River, but also the waterways that feed into it. A Seneca leader told us that they actually don’t make much of a distinction between the waterways that flow into one another, such as the Allegheny River coming together along with the Monongahela to form the headwaters of the Ohio. So it’s actually pretty fascinating that it goes so far back in history, and that there’s a modest description of this river that has provided so much life and and growth for our region.

KH: Our colleague, Julie Grant, is looking at how Marietta, Ohio, is using tourism around the river and their historic downtown for economic development. Later, she’ll be reporting about potential plastic pollution from ethane crackers planned for the region. Tell me about some of the other stories in the series, and how environment, economy and culture overlap.

HS: Two of the first stories we published have to do with the history of pollution.

One of the stories focuses on the history of the Clean Water Act movement, which was in a way sparked by a fire on the Cuyahoga River. The Ohio River was incredibly affected by the movement for clean water. This desire now seems very natural to people. Now there’s an expectation of clean water, but that wasn’t the case back in the late 1960s and early ’70s. [In the story] we talk about how that river fire really led to this dramatic legislation that now is governing the regulated pollutants that can be dumped into the waterways. It also talks about some of the rules that the [Trump] administration has pulled back on, and what that might mean.

All this feeds into this overarching theme of the project — that we cannot ignore the majesty of this watershed, the beauty, the great scenic views, and what this river brings to communities like Marietta, but also the growing threats, not only from industry, but with climate change.

KH: In terms of climate change, you’re looking at flooding and what other kinds of issues?

HS: We’ll have a story that goes into this idea of political boundaries. You have fragmentation of municipalities, but also fragmentation of cities and states. But we’re all within this big region. The lead regulatory commission, ORSANCO, has backed off just recently on their powers to regulate what’s happening in the watershed. That speaks a lot to the pollutants and agricultural runoff, and other things that need to be treated in a more holistic sense, and are potentially not going to be. It may lead to repercussions, especially as climate change is making everything a little bit more extreme.

Ohio River Regulators Adopt Voluntary Pollution Control Standards

KH: Some of the stories celebrate places and people along the river, and others highlight problems that the region is struggling with. Can you share your favorite story of celebration, and then the flip-side of that?

HS: [One story] speaks to this really, really deep connection to this asset that defines a vast region. One of the reporters working with Environmental Health News is featuring an Indiana resident who moved back to a very small town in Indiana after working in coastal cities on environmental issues. He moved back to where his grandparents had a homestead, and he has created his own Waterkeeper Alliance there because he’s so proud of his roots, and he wants to preserve that. He’s working really hard to grow the fundraising of this Waterkeeper Alliance so that not only he can make a living wage doing this work that is so important to him, but also so that they can actually be making an impact in this area he loves.

KH: Waterkeepers patrol waterways, looking for problem areas and keeping an eye out. 

HS: Right. From what I understand, they also can lead lawsuits when bad things are being done, or regulations are being broken. In Indiana, they have the corporation AK Steel, which is attributed to 70 percent of the regulated pollutants that are dumped into the Ohio River. That’s pretty significant, given that as recently as 2015, the Ohio River was deemed the most polluted river in the United States.

KH: National Geographic is also involved. Tell me about how that came about and what they’re doing.

HS: National Geographic Society is partnering with the Lenfest Institute for Journalism on helping to promote collaborations and innovative environmental coverage in different regions. What the National Geographic Society is doing within this project is connecting us to a firm named Blue Raster. They’re an interactive mapping firm, and they helped us put together this 24 stop interactive map of highlights of the Ohio with almost like a road trip kind of feel. 

KH: What’s one of the points that people might not recognize, or or something that’s interesting to you? 

HS: Well, the very first one is the start of the Lewis and Clark Trail, which we’ve posted with a great historical painting of that, so it’s not just a photo of a marker. You get the real sense of history there. But then you go to things like a nuclear power station, and then there’s these beautiful spots like a wildflower reserve. Then you hit a coal ash impoundment, and then you go to the Falls of the Ohio near Louisville.

That’s, again, taking on that theme that there’s such beauty [in the Ohio watershed] and a great desire to preserve it, but there are also threats, and we cannot ignore one or the other.

Top photo of the Ohio River by Kara Lofton of West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

Good River: Stories of the Ohio is a series about the environment, economy and culture of the Ohio River watershed, produced by seven nonprofit newsrooms. To see more, please visit ohiowatershed.org