Traveling the Ohio River; Connecting with Communities

Industrial development along the banks of the Ohio River in Natrium, WV. 

In mid-July, I traveled with a group of community organizers up and down the Ohio River. Our goal was to hear from folks that live in river communities about  their relationship to the Ohio River.

We heard stories of connection to and concern for the River. As I heard folks speak about their relationship to the water, my own story came to the surface.

I grew up in Kanawha County not far from the Kanawha River. I longed to swim and know those waters, but was told by my parents that the River was dirty, it wasn’t safe. For college, I moved to Huntington and lived two blocks from the Ohio. Like the Kanawha, I knew that this River too wasn’t safe to swim in, though I didn’t understand why. In my early 20s, I married a man who worked for the energy industry. We lived up and down the West Virginia side of the Ohio River, traveling to get work where we could.

 The first harvest of the year always reminds me why I am thankful for the land and waters I call home. 

Today, we live on a farm in Putman County which benefits from fertile soils of the Hurricane Creek floodplain, which is a tributary if the Kanawha River, that ultimately flows into the Ohio River.

Throughout the years,  I developed my connection to the Ohio, and it’s many facets.

Through the listening sessions, I heard other folks have the same experience. For so many of us, the river means good paying jobs, often the only good paying job in an area.

On our tour, I saw coal fired power plants, petro chemical producing facilities, fracking well pads and more. I saw 2 ½ miles of industry line the river in Natrium, WV.  And heard from people sick from polluted water.

As I listened to the stories, I was touched by how deep the lines of connection run between communities and the river. I heard that the river defines us – our history, our present and our future. But it’s time for us to get a much bigger say in what that future looks like.

There is a plan in development to bring in millions of federal dollars YEARLY to the Ohio River Valley. These meetings were an opportunity for folks to bring their concerns and hopes to the table, to get a voice in crafting this plan. Flooding, water affordability, habitat loss, inadequate sanitation and toxic pollution were the themes I heard the most.

I also heard many voices say clearly – we should not have to choose between good paying jobs and the health of our families. We work hard, we power the country, and we deserve more.

We deserve a future where our children and grandchildren will not be forced to make a choice between health and economics. We deserve good paying jobs that support the health of our bodies, our communities and our economy. We deserve financial well-being from our hard labor. We deserve better.

Jordan Lubtkin of the National Wildlife Federation speaks with community members gathered in Marietta. The National Wildlife Federation, of which WV Rivers is the West Virginia affiliate, is helping local organizers craft a vision for the Ohio River that will be delivered to Congress in 2023. 

Residents made a list of their biggest water related challenges and used stickers to select which issues are of greatest concern.

My friends ask me how I can bear to hear the stories folks share about their loved ones and neighbors dying of cancer, neighborhoods of women who develop thyroid disease, children born with cognitive delays and autism in numbers much higher than the national average. This is heavy work. But the load is shared by the concerned community members who care so much that they give up an evening to come and talk with us. The load is shared by our community groups, my co-workers and our partners who keep fighting for a brighter future here in WV, and in our sister states.

The load is shared by each voice who takes a stand for the Ohio River. Together, we are creating a new vision of what health can look like here, in our communities, in our backyards, in our wallets.

What I’ve seen is that anyone who has lived in the Ohio River Valley has stories of connection and concern for the river. If you would like to have a voice in crafting the Ohio River plan, please reach out to me and I’ll make sure your stories and concerns are heard.

We all deserve a voice in creating this new future – a future of good paying local jobs that create health and wealth, a future of healthy bodies and communities, a future filled with swimming and fishing in the river that in so many ways defines who we are. Please write to me, I want to hear your story.

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