Contributing columnist Anthony Cherolis is bicycling across North America and will be sending us occasional updates on what he’s seeing in other states and cities in terms of better transportation infrastructure and policy. You can follow his journey on Instagram.
There has been a lot in the news lately about the “Dirty Deal” struck in Congress by legislators working to get the Inflation Reduction Act passed. The follow on bill was negotiated by Democratic Senator Joe Manchin from West Virginia, who had been blocking the passage of the larger bill. The bill would fast-track several fossil-fuel projects including the Mountain Valley Pipeline in West Virginia.
While bicycle touring through this region and the stunning Ohio River Valley, I was struck by the economic woes of the cities and towns. Extractive oil and coal industries are at the same time surging (fracking for fossil gas) and waning (coal plants shutting down). Finding restaurants, drug stores, and grocery stores was difficult, even though I was passing through once bustling river towns and rail depots. The town of Cheshire, Ohio, in the shadow of the Gavin power plant’s towering chimneys, is a literal ghost town that was bought out by the power company for $20 million to address persistent pollution and future liability. That plant is now facing closure for long violating regulations that coal ash storage ponds be lined to prevent groundwater pollution.
This shift away from fossil fuels is a real and important change happening to regions in Southeast Ohio, Kentucky, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania. Longtime residents are rightfully worried and upset by mandates and environmental laws that reduce employment, shutter power plants, and leave sad shells of once vibrant towns. Those residents are looking for solutions, politically and legislatively, that maintain jobs and bring prosperity (and people) back to their communities. A focus on paying rent, a job to do today, and economic stability for their family and friends often outweighs the less focused and complicated task of maintaining a survivable and productive climate on Earth.
These areas are teetering near the edge of viability. State and local leaders, along with representative in Congress, must look for sustainable policy, green energy investments, infrastructure projects, and tourism opportunities that provide the jobs, pride, and quality of life that these communities deserve. As I mentioned, the Ohio River Valley and surrounding hills are beautiful. Riverside hotels, boating tours, hiking trails, and walkable town centers should be jointly marketed to those in nearby cities and land-locked towns looking to get away for a relaxing weekend with a river view. Gallipolis, Ohio seems to have figured out the day trip and tourism market with an inviting town center, riverfront park, nearby trails, and natural areas.
Another near term investment is federal funding for West Virginia and Pennsylvania to close the gaps in the North Bend Rail Trail and Sheepskin Trail, creating a biking, walking, and jogging corridor from Parkersburg, WV all the way to the Great Allegheny Passage. A few segments are missing in what could be an amazing route, including the 5-mile link from the West Virginia University campus to Parkersburg on the Ohio River. That struggling West Virginia city could desperately use the investment and a better, bike-able connection to the young adults at the university. All along the rail trail, rail-stop towns would benefit from restaurant, camp store, bike shop, and bed-and-breakfast customers spending money and keeping local folks employed. Longterm local jobs could be tied to this project if it were identified as a linear National Park, similar to the C&O Canal Trail between Cumberland, MD and Washington, DC.
One thing I noticed while cycling through West Virginia was the common smell of fuel from small oil wells and storage tanks visible from the North Bend Rail Trail. If one can smell the fuel from several hundred feet away, there is definitely leakage of methane and evaporation of harmful volatile organic compounds from these small operations. That is concerning both from a health perspective and relative to climate change. Methane is a much more powerful heat trapping greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.
Investments in hillside and rooftop solar, ridgetop wind turbines, and geothermal installations would offset the jobs and pride lost in the transition away from fossil fuels and coal power plants. Instead of continuing with a regressive and polluting fossil fuel pipeline deal in Congress, West Virginia, Ohio, Kentucky, and Pennsylvania legislators should push for a green energy future and home/business energy efficiency programs. The energy grid and power generation has multi-state, global, and federal impacts. The transition away from fossil fuels needs to be at that federal level with significant offsetting investments. Without a just transition, residents and voters are unlikely to support the needed changes.
We can take these same lessons back to any state with industries and priorities in transition. For example in Connecticut, building more Cold War era nuclear submarines should be a much lower priority than developing the wind turbine, geothermal, and rooftop solar industries. Investing now in these future technologies and workforce would line Connecticut up to be the technical and manufacturing resource for the wider Northeast and East Coast. Skilled engineers, welders, electricians, and machinists would gladly do that work if it were available. There would be plentiful jobs in those sustainable-future industries for entry-level installation technicians and maintenance workers. Similar to coal-plant mercury pollution that travels to the Northeast in the clouds, the climate emergency does not pay attention to state lines.
Something you can do: Reach out to your Congress members with a phone call or email and let them know what their priorities should be for industries, job training, and technology development investments. Pay attention to those topics as you research candidates who are running for election this November. Does your candidate have a platform that invests in a sustainable and less-polluted future, or are they supporting the status quo?