Credit Kara Lofton / West Virginia Public Broadcasting

In many ways, the Ohio River is an unsung resource for the region it serves. The Ohio’s near-thousand-mile course flows through Pennsylvania and five other states before emptying into the Mississippi. It’s a source of drinking water for more than five million people. But its long legacy as a “working river” has also made it the most polluted in the country. However, those living along its banks from Pittsburgh to Louisville are now beginning to realize that reimagining their relationship to the river could prove crucial to the region’s future. In our Headwaters series, we explore what exactly this new chapter in the river’s history could look like—and how we can get there. Check back weekly for new stories through December and January. Headwaters is made possible with support from the Benedum Foundation.

Downstream of Dam #5 in Falling Waters, W.Va. during a study using tagged American eels from Millville, W.Va.
David Sutherland / U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

At the end of Vineyard Road in Falling Waters, West Virginia, there is an old, stone and brick structure on the Potomac River. This small, historic building is a hydroelectric power plant owned by Cube Hydro Partners based in Maryland. Beside the structure is ‘Dam #5.’

Tim Reddinger, Ohio River, Beaver, Pennsylvania
Kara Lofton / West Virginia Public Broadcasting

It’s easy to take the water coming out of your faucet for granted, but tragedies like the Elk River Chemical spill that left thousands of residents in West Virginia's capital city without water for days have put tap water front and center.

Appalachia is no stranger to water contamination, especially in places with a history of heavy industry, like the Ohio River Valley. But as a large source of drinking water, how do we know it’s safe?

Shannon Tompkins / Flickr

In many ways, the Ohio River is an unsung resource for the region it serves. The Ohio’s near-thousand-mile course flows through Pennsylvania and five other states before emptying into the Mississippi. It’s a source of drinking water for more than five million people. But its long legacy as a “working river” has also made it the most polluted in the country. Today, many cities and towns along the Ohio are rethinking their relationship to the river—and weighing how a large-scale restoration effort could be critical to the region’s future. But just how do we get there?

Three New Developments to Watch Along the Ohio River

Jan 13, 2017

Cities and towns all along the Ohio River are pushing to reinvent their economies. And they’re turning to everything from recreation to new industry to do it. Here are three new developments we’re watching from Pennsylvania to West Virginia.

1. Shell’s Ethane Cracker

Google Earth

Closed in January 2016, the Shenango Coke Works on Neville Island is a quiet place these days. A group of local activists would like to keep it that way: They’d like to see the site turned into a solar farm.  A pipe dream? Maybe not. The utility that owns it actually has a robust recent history of investing in renewables. 

Last year when Leah Andrascik heard the Shenango Coke Works was closing, she thought it was a joke. Then, when she realized the news sent in an email by a fellow activist was true, she was relieved.

Kara Lofton

As towns large and small along the Ohio River struggle to rebuild their economies, many are trying to attract more industry. But some places are realizing that embracing the recreational side of their riverfronts can also be a key engine for growth.

Business has been picking up in recent years for Tim Reddinger, who owns a bait shop in Bridgewater, just north of Pittsburgh, along the Ohio River.

“Can you see that right there?” Reddinger asks, pointing from the bank to a nearby eddy in the river. “Those are baby shad—probably not a couple months old.”

Nicholas A. Tonelli / Flickr

The hydroelectric power station at the Kinzua Dam on the Allegheny River (pictured above) is one of the larger hydropower projects in Pennsylvania—generating enough electricity to power 400,000 homes. But many smaller dams on the Three Rivers aren’t being used as power stations. And some say putting those existing dams to work could give the region a valuable source of renewable energy.

Ryan Loew / Allegheny Front

Moving goods on barges is big business. But it’s a part of the economy that floats precariously on infrastructure in dire need of an overhaul. 

Kara Lofton

Industry has left a dirty legacy along the Ohio River. We’re talking about toxins like PCBs, dioxins and mercury—discharged into the water by steel mills and the petroleum industry for decades. This week, we caught up with Judy Petersen, executive director of the Kentucky Waterways Alliance, to tell us more about how legacy pollution—and new pollution—impacts more of our lives than we might think.

In Photos: Life on the Ohio River

Dec 7, 2016

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.


Jason Meredith / Flickr

Chances are, one of the first things you do in the morning is turn on the faucet. For more than three million people in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Kentucky and West Virginia, that means getting tap water that comes from the Ohio River. But according to the Environmental Protection Agency, the Ohio is also one of the most polluted rivers in the country. 

Kara Lofton / West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Last summer, huge hazardous algal blooms shut down drinking-water intakes along the Ohio River. Some experts say the mix of farm runoff, wastewater, and rising temperatures makes blooms like this more likely, leading to major health issues and expenditure of public dollars.


“It started to cover the river,” said local resident Ethan Wells. “It started looking like a neon [green] slime across the top of the river, and it was kind of eerie in a way to have the river alive like that.”

Allegheny Front

Some water quality advocates think getting big industrial polluters to pay for farm runoff prevention projects is an innovative way to control water pollution. But critics of the Ohio River’s pollution credit trading system say it’s just another pay-to-pollute scheme.

Tracking the Health Impacts of C8 Exposure

Oct 28, 2016
Jeff Gentner / AP

Residents throughout the Ohio River Valley from West Virginia to Kentucky have been quietly living with the toxic legacy of a chemical known as C8. Manufactured by DuPont, C8 was an important component of consumer products like non-stick Teflon cookware. But researchers now know that C8 exposure is linked to all kinds of health problems, including cancer.

Jeremy Stump via Flickr

Interstate cooperation has been crucial to restoring waters in the Great Lakes and Chesapeake Bay. But so far, there hasn’t been much interest in marshaling a regional effort to improve the heavily polluted Ohio River. Those living along its banks from Pittsburgh to Louisville are beginning to realize the increasing value of this water, and how reimagining their relationship to it could prove critical to the region’s future.

Dave Mistich / West Virginia Public Broadcasting

For more than half a century along the Ohio River, the chemical company DuPont provided jobs for thousands of people. One chemical they produced is PFOA, commonly known as C8. It was a remarkably useful compound, used in “Teflon” non-stick cookware, stain-resistant fabrics, and even in some food wrappers.