Published first on the Progress News, March 14, 2022
As we have gotten our regional Redevelopment program off the ground, our first focus areas have been Emlenton and Oil City, where the ORA already had significant on-the-ground presence and property. Now, as our program has matured, our capacity has increased, and the first few priority sites are moving toward remediation, we are expanding our assessment net farther throughout the region.
One area we will be focusing on next is the stretch of the Allegheny River between Franklin and Oil City. This area was once the site of the 243-acre oil refinery known as the Eclipse Lubricating Oil Company and Atlantic Richfield Company (ARCO). In the early 1900s, the refinery was the world’s largest, utilizing up to 660 metal and wooden storage tanks and filling a huge swath of land, including sludge fields deep into the river. Complementary industrial complexes sprouted up along the neighboring riverbank, covering the entire stretch of riverbank in railroads, factories, and storage yards.
The sections of the Allegheny River to the north and south of the former ARCO refinery now enjoy federal Wild and Scenic designations, but this stretch itself is a notable exception. Persistent historical contamination still leeches into the river, which is a regulatory floodway. Until now, there has been little local capacity for environmental assessment and remediation of such a massive area, and so it has been noticeably separated from strategic revitalization efforts in the downtown areas of Franklin and Oil City, to significant impact. The median household income for this area is roughly half that of most Americans, with an overall poverty level of 19.7%…25.4% for those under the age of 18.
This area is only thirty miles upriver from our project site in Emlenton and only a few miles downriver from the Oil City sites, so now is the perfect time to build on the success of the ORA’s first EPA-funded project and fill in the gap in assessment information and reuse planning for this critical stretch of river. Redevelopment potential abounds in this area, as anyone who regularly drives Route 8 or has enjoyed the Erie-to-Pittsburgh Trail knows well. The community of Sugarcreek has a residential and light industrial section upriver near Oil City, and a mostly commercial and medium industrial section downriver near Franklin. The area is dotted with active commercial and industrial sites, but there is certainly room for additional quality, family-sustaining employment, and entrepreneurship opportunities, building on the strengths of the region.
The prosperity of our entire region once depended on the fickle luck of the oil drill. Today, true prosperity and long-term resilience for the Oil Heritage Region depends on the balanced development and utilization of the Allegheny River. With the support and partnership of our local, state, and federal allies, the ORA will continue its mission to equitably and strategically nurture the resources and opportunities along the river for the benefit of all who call this area home.