East Liverpool and the Unforgiving Economy of Rural Appalachia

About 100 miles Southeast of Cleveland, nestled in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, along the Ohio River sits the small city of East Liverpool, Ohio. Once known as the pottery capitol of the world, many of the China and glassware factories have closed, as have the steel mills where many East Liverpool residents once worked. In its heyday during World War II, almost 50,000 people lived in East Liverpool. Today the city’s population tops off at just above 10,000.

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.

East Liverpool enjoys another dubious honor: a staggeringly high cancer rate. In 2009, data showed that East Liverpool’s cancer rate is 615.8 people per 100,000. The Ohio average is 450.4.

East Liverpool and the tiny towns and villages that surround it are part of the forgotten rural poor in America. Devoid of all economic opportunity, they’ve become a dumping ground for the detritus of the global economy while simultaneously fueling it by providing coal, oil and natural gas.

If you haven’t heard of East Liverpool, don’t be too hard on yourself. Until about a year ago, I hadn’t either. My job as an organizer for the Ohio Organizing Collaborative took me there. I joined the OOC to start organizing communities affected by fracking, the process of extracting oil and gas from shale formations deep within the Earth. As I began exploring the rural areas of Eastern Ohio, a colleague introduced me to three men – one in his seventies, two in their eighties – who had been fighting for environmental justice for East Liverpool since the 1980s: Alonzo Spencer, Virgil Reynolds and Mike Walton. Each has been seeking justice for their community. They are the remnants of a once robust movement to shut down the hazardous waste incinerator that was finally constructed in 1994.

They still write letters to the EPA, the governor and anyone else they can think of. They are seeking answers about an ash plume emitted from the incinerator last summer. The ash coated the homes and cars in the surrounding area. No one has given them an explanation. Meanwhile the cancer cases continue to mount. A friend and coworker of mine from East Liverpool knows 12 people who suffer or passed away from blood or bone cancer. In a city this small – this is outrageous.

The common notion is that Democrats are environmentalists and Republicans are not. But the Clinton family and administration had a hand in constructing and protecting the incinerator. Friends and former colleagues of President Bill Clinton and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton were the incinerator’s initial investors. Despite countless violations on it’s permit, the Clinton administration allowed the incinerator to be constructed – 1100 feet from an elementary school, in the middle of an African American neighborhood, on a flood plane along the Ohio River.

Indeed, as the area surround East Liverpool de-industrialized and residents could not longer find work that pays a living wage, the area’s main industry seems to be waste disposal and resource extraction. Across the river in Beaver County PA is a coal ash impoundment pond affectionately known as “Little Blue,” possibly because it literally glows neon blue. There are more than 600 permits for horizontal fracking wells within 50 miles of the city (NOTE: That’s in Ohio only, if you include western Pennsylvania it’s more like 1,300) . Just south of it, in the equally stressed village of Wellsville, cancer-causing silica sand used for fracking operations is stored in huge uncovered piles just several hundred feet from a residential neighborhood. Down river in Jefferson County is First Energy’s dilapidated Coal Fire Power Plant WH Sammis – which the EPA says is one of Ohio’s top five polluters. Meanwhile, a University of Cincinnati study has shown that the levels of manganese emissions in East Liverpool are at a dangerous level and have led to learning disabilities and cognitive problems among the area’s children. And we all wonder why poor folks living in areas like these just can’t get a job and make something of themselves?

I’m not from East Liverpool. I am not poor, nor have I ever known poverty. I grew up in a comfortable suburb far from the shootings, drug trade and hazardous waste incinerators. I am the granddaughter of poor Irish immigrants who came to Cleveland in the 1920s for economic opportunity and political freedom. My grandfather got a WPA job under President Roosevelt during the New Deal. He was a laborer who helped build the Terminal Tower. He eventually got a union job at the Cleveland Graphite Bronze Factory. He took three busses to work every day, but made enough money to send his seven kids to Catholic school (It only cost $12 for each child to attend.) They lived in the bottom apartment of a double on West 93rd Street, often sleeping several children to a bed and my mother on the couch in the living room. Life was hard for my mom’s family – but each and every one of those seven children joined the ranks of at least the middle class. My uncles served in the military, and the GI bill sent them to college and law school. One uncle became a Vice President at both Notre Dame and Ohio State University and another became a judge in Cuyahoga County. My mom received her master’s degree from Boston College.

Not only was the social safety net present, but my family was not exposed to the same level of concentrated toxic contamination. Cleveland’s air quality was bad when my mom was a child in the 1950s and ‘60s – but the economic opportunities she had gave her a fighting chance to move someplace healthier. Few people in East Liverpool have that chance. Those that did are already gone.

My family is smart and driven – but no more so than many of the people I have met in East Liverpool. The difference is, we benefitted from a more robust social safety net, unions and economic opportunity. Without access to public transportation, my grandfather wouldn’t have been able to make it to work. Without a union, he wouldn’t have made a living wage. Without the programs put in place under the New Deal, my struggling young grandparents and their children might not have climbed out of poverty.

In poor neighborhoods across America, rural and urban alike, we must return to investing in our people. Without the New Deal, there would be no Caitlin Johnson – of this I am certain. It’s time to realize that dream for all Americans. And it’s time to move to a new economy – one based on investing in people, not investing in resource extraction and waste disposal. The areas richest in natural resources should not be the areas most plagued by crippling poverty. It doesn’t add up. The patterns are far too clear for us to continue blaming individual behavior when the game appears to be rigged in favor of nameless, faceless corporations.

By Caitlin Johnson

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