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In an area once known for its fine pottery, there's now economic decline, heroin abuse, a hazardous waste incinerator and the nation's largest coal ash dumping site.
Route Fifty is currently featuring dispatches from a city-county summer roadtrip in Maryland, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and elsewhere along the way. An Introduction to the Series | Previous Stop: Pittsburgh
EAST LIVERPOOL, Ohio — I’ve visited this Ohio River town on a handful of occasions and each time I’ve driven a circuit through its mostly desolate downtown streets, the few people who happen to be hanging around have given me very puzzling looks. It’s as if they want to ask me: “Why on earth are you here in East Liverpool?”
Two Sundays back, it happened again in The Diamond, the historic center of the downtown area where Sixth and Market streets meet Dresden and St. Clair avenues at an oddly shaped intersection. There was a younger man and a slightly older-looking woman sprawled out on a circular piece of street furniture surrounded by some trees. The man looked over at me with a glazed-over look in his eyes visibly confused by my presence. There was nobody else immediately around.
I wasn’t in the mood to make conversation so I moved along to explore the blocks of the downtown area, which are filled with some architecturally impressive buildings, including the Art Deco municipal building on Sixth Street.
Sadly, too many of the commercial and industrial structures are vacant or otherwise underutilized. In a different economic environment, this would be a place where craft breweries, art studios and farm-to-table restaurants might flourish in rehabbed buildings. But that's a reality that’s really difficult to imagine for East Liverpool, which has been in a state of stagnation for many years.
From the quality of the architecture, you can tell East Liverpool was a very prosperous place at some point in time. This place was, after all, the Pottery Capital of the World. I feel comfortable using the past tense here because back in the 1990s, a retired editor of the local newspaper, The Evening Review, used the phrase “Former Pottery Center of the United States” to describe East Liverpool in his book on the city’s historic buildings, “A City of Yesterday.”
East Liverpool’s good years started in the 1840s and lasted into the 1940s when this stretch of the Ohio River was the hub of U.S. ceramics manufacturing with hundreds of potteries in the city and the neighboring communities of Wellsville, Ohio, and Newell and Chester across the river in West Virginia. The local clay was particularly good to create fine Lotus Ware porcelain and yellow ware. (Check out the Museum of Ceramics if you’re ever passing through town.)
In 1955, East Liverpool hit its peak population, with around 26,000 residents. Since then, it’s lost more than half its population—it’s now just under 11,000 residents. There are only a few ceramics manufacturers left in the area, most notably the Homer Laughlin China Co. in Newell.
Driving through, it’s easy to see that the economy and the residents of East Liverpool have been struggling for some time. (Don’t expect Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who is running for president, to use the city as a backdrop for the Ohio “comeback” story he often likes to tout.)
Rust Wire paid East Liverpool a visit last October:
Nearly 30 percent of all residents live below the poverty level. The per capita income is just more than $16,000. The unemployment rate is 13 percent. It’s a city where almost every second or third house seems to be abandoned, and not just abandoned. Some are burnt out. Some are falling down. The locals talk about the incessant and merciless drug traffic. They say dealers have come up to the city from the east coast – having found a robust market for heroin and other opiates. The drug trade wreaks constant havoc on the streets. In late September, five people were shot there in a single night.
The illegal drug trade continues to wreak havoc in East Liverpool and many other towns like it. Just last week, law enforcement did a huge sweep of suspected drug traffickers and users throughout Columbiana County, where the city is located, making more than 40 arrests.
The day of my Route Fifty roadtrip through the region, Washington County, Pennsylvania, not too far away, had recorded 16 drug overdoses in the span of 24 hours, as The Washington Post reported. On a normal day, the county sees on average five to eight overdoses, nearly all from heroin.
Heroin is not just a problem in this region of Appalachia. As Route Fifty Editor-at-Large Timothy B. Clark details in an in-depth report this week, New England is also seeing terrible impacts from heroin.
There are other hazards in East Liverpool and surrounding communities beyond drugs.
Take, for instance, the Heritage Thermal Services hazardous waste incinerator, which the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has said “repeatedly allowed toxins to contaminate the air over the past four years, exposing nearby residents to chemicals that can cause cancer, miscarriages and early death,” The Columbus Dispatch reported in May.
In June, an agreement was reached between the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency and Heritage Thermal Services to resolve the violations from a July 2013 incident when approximately 761 pounds of incinerator ash was discharged into a nearby neighborhood.
And across the river on the West Virginia-Pennsylvania border is the nation’s largest coal ash impoundment lake, Little Blue Run, which has been the subject of litigation brought by nearby residents. The impoundment is in the process of being shut down. But the legacy of the coal ash that’s been dumped at the 1,900 acre site is sure to last for a long, long time.
When the Little Blue Run impoundment opened in 1974, it had no liner to contain the coal ash. The Pennsylvania [Department of Environmental Protection] noted in its court filing that monitoring at the site indicated that groundwater degradation "is or may be occurring" due to leaching from the pond. The toxin arsenic and contaminants such as sulfates and chlorides were found in groundwater near the impoundment—a serious concern, because nearby households rely on private wells for drinking water.
Akron, Ohio-based FirstEnergy, which owns the Little Blue Run impoundment site and the power station that feeds it, has steadily bought up surrounding land over the years and now owns 20 percent of the private land in Greene Township on the Pennsylvania side of the border, according to The Beaver County Times.
In May 2013, the newspaper detailed the impacts of the land acquisitions on the local community:
Since its creation in the mid 1970s, the disposal site has changed the look, feel of the landscape in the adjoining communities of Greene Township and Hancock County, W.Va.
It has also changed the population in the area. In 2011, [Greene Township Secretary Sandra] Wright, compiled a list of families whose properties were purchased by FirstEnergy and moved away from the area. Wright's list, titled "Gone, but not forgotten," now includes 78 families bought out by FirstEnergy.
In August 2013, I drove around some of the roads surrounding the Little Blue Run impoundment. It’s hard to get a good look at the impoundment, but the area definitely feels desolate and semi-abandoned.
Along one of the roads, you can see off in the distance the source of the all the coal ash: The billowing smoke stacks at the Bruce Mansfield power plant in Shippingport, Pennsylvania.
So what do you do with a place like East Liverpool, which has so many problems? That’s an excellent question. I don’t have a good answer and I suspect that nobody else does either. But for East Liverpool’s sake, let’s hope the “City of Yesterday” is able to figure out a way to renewal and reinvigoration.
Next Stops: Steubenville, Cadiz, New Philadelphia and Wooster, Ohio.
Michael Grass is Executive Editor of Government Executive's Route Fifty.