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Groups: Never Enough Safety Standards for Ohio River Water Quality

The Ohio River is considered one of the most polluted waterways in the United States. (ChipMahaney/Flickr)
The Ohio River is considered one of the most polluted waterways in the United States. (ChipMahaney/Flickr)
August 9, 2018

CINCINNATI — A commission that helps control water quality in the Ohio River basin is looking to shed some of its duties - an idea that's raising some concerns.

For 70 years, the Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission, known as ORSANCO, has set standards for pollution levels in the river to ensure the water is safe for drinking and recreation. But now, commissioners say their standards are redundant, as state and federal Environmental Protection Agency programs also have standards.

Environmental scientist Dr. Randi Pokladnik of Eastern Ohio said it's problematic, as the Ohio River is still one of the most polluted in the country.

"How can you be redundant on testing the drinking water for five million people? I would rather err on the side of 'double testing' than not testing at all,” Pokladnik said. “And several states don't even test for some of the parameters that ORSANCO tests for."

ORSANCO is comprised of commissioners from Ohio and seven other states. And Pokladnik said it has 188 testing criteria that six states and the U.S. EPA do not.

The commission will take public comments on the proposal to decrease its authority until August 20.

Nathan Alley, conservation program coordinator with the Ohio Sierra Club chapter, said since 1948, ORSANCO has set standards that complement federal regulations. In the absence of ORSANCO standards, he's convinced that states will set their own, varying pollution levels, which can't help but affect overall water quality in the Ohio River.

"There is this somewhat complicated, but also somewhat fragile, regulatory structure that has been in place for decades, and has worked to protect our waterways,” Alley said. “And by dismantling any one piece of the regime, you risk the whole thing falling apart."

As a concerned Cincinnati resident, Mary Aguilera said the issue is more than drinking water. She noted dropping the standards threatens recreation on the river, and the resulting tourist revenue.

"Water is life. And so, if we don't hold them accountable, who will?” Aguilera said. “It's all about big money and big industry doing what they want. They're not the ones that have to pay the price for their negligence."

ORSANCO argues that without having to focus on water-quality standards, its scant resources could be directed to other duties, like public outreach and spill mitigation and response.

Mary Kuhlman, Public News Service - OH