Athens Mayor Steve Patterson, City Planner Paul Logue and local environmental activists gathered at Athens City Hall Monday afternoon to discuss initiatives the city has taken to address climate change and promote sustainability.
The event was a press conference hosted by Defend Our Future, a project of the Environmental Defense Fund, the first of two planned press events in Ohio. Their intent is “to highlight some of the communities in Ohio that are leading the way in sustainability and climate awareness,” explained Defend Our Future Ohio Director Luke Ward. (The EDF is a nonprofit national environmental advocacy group.)
He added that the next conference will be held in Dayton (on Sept. 4).
Many of the city of Athens’ efforts have been under way for several years now, as Logue noted during his brief address. He pointed to the Sustainability Commission. Established in 2012, it’s composed of volunteer citizens who meet on a monthly basis and advise city leaders on how to manage the city more sustainably.
Logue listed the commission’s key goals, which include reducing water and energy consumption, focusing on zero-waste initiatives, and educating the community about sustainability issues. Logue said it’s “very clear” from all of the work city officials and community members have been doing to update the city’s Comprehensive Plan that “sustainability is one of the key items that we will be integrating.”
Mayor Patterson noted that the city is a member of SolSmart, a national designation program that recognizes cities, counties and towns that foster the development of mature local solar markets. Patterson said the city already has earned a bronze designation through the SolSmart program, and is aiming to receive silver in the next year.
Patterson said he was one of more than 400 mayors to join the Climate Mayors, a group dedicated to upholding the Paris Agreement goals, founded in 2014. Patterson joined in 2017 after the Trump administration decided to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement. “When the current federal administration decided that they were going to move away from the Paris climate accord,” Patterson said, “I think that most of us that were city mayors, city administrators, city council members, village mayors, village council members – everyone was kind of in shock, and a group started up which was the mayors, the climate mayors group. I jumped in right away... There were a number of us that jumped in right away saying, ‘We are going to continue down the path of what is the Paris Climate Accord because it is the most responsible thing to do within your own municipalities.’” Since then, the city of Athens has stayed the course to achieve those goals. (Editor's note: The original version of this article drew an incorrect conclusion from the preceding quote by Patterson, saying he was among the "first in line to join the Climate Mayors." While he did suggest this was the case, he apparently meant he was among the first to join after Trump withdrew from the Climate Accord, as opposed to joining when the group formed in 2014. TS)
The carbon fee instituted through the Southeast Ohio Public Energy Council’s Electric Aggregation Program is another effort that Patterson discussed. The funds generated through the 0.2 cents per kilowatt hour fee will go toward funding solar panel installations on buildings in Athens, though the city has yet to determine how that money will be allocated in terms of which buildings will receive solar projects.
“It could be county buildings… it could be the courthouse,” Patterson said, adding that his “vision” for the program is that it eventually will lead to solar panels on all municipal buildings, as well as schools, libraries, and any other feasible options. “We are more effectively using your taxpayer dollars, which do pay our electric bill, because now we’re reducing that and we’re able to use that money in other ways,” Patterson said.
In 2016, Patterson noted, the city acquired one electric vehicle (EV) and now has two. There are two level-two EV chargers in the city Parking Garage, and the city is looking at installing a couple of fast-charge EV chargers near the Community Center for people passing through town. This could increase tourism while encouraging local sustainability, he said.
The recycling bins installed on Court Street, also in 2016, have diverted about 38 percent of the waste taken to landfills from uptown, Patterson said.
On top of the solar panels and other energy-saving updates currently being installed at the water treatment plant, and city efforts to switch all fluorescent lights to LEDs, Patterson said the city is looking into a methane digester, which would be “a sustainable way of producing more energy” by reusing methane and creating electricity.
“We are consistently and constantly looking at ways we can better improve our efficiencies in the city,” Patterson said, adding that community input is welcomed and encouraged. “If someone’s got an idea that will help with sustainability, this administration is all ears,” he said.
OHIO UNIVERSITY STUDENT Dominic Detwiler, a local activist, spoke about what it means to students to see their local government taking action to address climate change. Local sustainability improvements are “a reason why we have so many students stay here in Athens,” he said.
Detwiler noted that Athens County and southeast Ohio have “beautiful public lands, forests, parks,” and that the exploitation of coal and oil extraction industries have threatened local environments.
Though state and federal governments hold the power to prevent such exploitation, Detwiler said that local governments and residents can still fight back. He cited a permit application to dig a strip coal mine in Trimble Township, which the company recently pulled. “That coal mine didn’t happen because there were strong voices in Athens County saying ‘no,’” Detwiler said.
(The decision by Oxford Mining Company to suspend its permit application to the state EPA for a water-discharge permit for the strip mine likely had more to do with the company losing its contract to supply coal to the Conesville power plant in Coshocton County after this year. Those issues, however, are related to the higher regulatory costs related to climate change.)
The curbside composting pilot program (which begins next week, according to Rural Action’s Zero Waste Program Manager Andrea Reany), is another effort Detwiler praised, adding that he hopes the program eventually can serve apartment buildings (and, consequently, more college students) as well.
“Climate change and pollution, these are public health issues,” Detwiler said, issues that affect everyone, regardless of religion, politics, region or race. He encouraged everyone to vote with the environment in mind, and to vote “all the way down the ticket,” not just for national or state offices. “Policies enacted at the local and state level are having a much more important impact on sustainability and energy security than federal policy,” Detwiler said. “... Vote like your life depends on it because it literally does.”