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Documentary explores history of Ohio River and challenges facing waterway

A view of the Ohio River in Louisville
A view of the Ohio River in Louisville

A new KET documentary explores the current challenges and history of the Ohio River, one of Kentucky’s defining waterways.

“This Is The Ohio” follows Louisville filmmaker Morgan Atkinson’s journey down the river – starting in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and ending in Cairo, Illinois – and his undertaking of what he calls his “mission impossible,” telling the story of a 981-mile river in an hour.

He said his proximity to the river growing up allowed him to enjoy the recreational aspects of the waterway – going fishing or even waterskiing on the Ohio, on occasion – but that he didn’t always pay attention to the river itself. But, now, he feels it’s important to document the river, and what it means to the people who live, work and play on it.

“You see how important the river is not only to our community, but to anyone anywhere near it,” he said. “It’s just a vital resource, and some would say a spiritual resource, you know, it inspires people.”

The Ohio River gets its name from the Iroquois word “Oyo” – meaning “great river” – and French settlers first claimed the watershed of “La Belle Viviere,” which means “the beautiful river.” The waterway, once renowned for its beauty, is now one of the most polluted rivers in the U.S. according to a statement from the Environmental Law and Policy Center.

“There are sections where you can’t believe you’re on this river that’s been called so dirty and polluted,” Atkinson said. “You see most of the pollution occurs right around the cities, but then there are very long stretches that are just natural beauty at its best.”

The environmental advocacy nonprofit American Rivers released a report last year that ranked the Ohio River as the second most endangered river in the country. The two threats that the river – which provides drinking water to around 5 million people – faces specifically are pollution and climate change, as well as 5 million people are at risk of losing clean water.

According to the Ohio River Foundation’s website, there are other issues for the river besides pollution and climate change – including toxic algae, habitat degradation and invasive species.

Atkinson said that, for many years, the river was seen as a dumping ground for forever chemicals and other man-made pollutants, including smokestacks, which are large industrial chimneys that funnel smoke from burning fossil fuels for generating electricity.

The documentary premiered early Monday morning and will screen on KET throughout the week.

Atkinson said he hopes people come away from the documentary.

“What I hope they take away from it is just a greater appreciation for it and a raised awareness of what a beautiful river it is or has the potential to be – if we take better care of it,” he said.

Zoe Lewis is a first-year sophomore at Murray State University from Benton, Kentucky. She is majoring in journalism with a minor in media production. She enjoys reading, going to movie theaters, spending time with her family and friends, and eating good food. Zoe is an Alpha Omicron Pi sorority member in the Delta Omega chapter. She is very excited to start working at WKMS and work while learning more about NPR, reporting, journalism, and broadcasting.
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