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Groups Caution Against Ditching Ohio River Water-Quality Standards

Environmental groups say the Ohio River is still plagued by pollution that threatens public health. (Ken Lund/Flickr)
Environmental groups say the Ohio River is still plagued by pollution that threatens public health.
(Ken Lund/Flickr)
August 13, 2018

FRANKFORT, Ky. — A commission that helps control water quality in the Ohio River is looking to shed some of its duties.

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 said it's problematic, since the Ohio River is still one of the most polluted in the country.

"How can you be redundant on testing the drinking water for 5 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 made up of commissioners from Kentucky 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 next Monday, August 20.

In the absence of ORSANCO standards, Hank Graddy, water committee chair with the Kentucky Sierra Club, said he is convinced state pollution levels will vary, which can't help but affect overall water quality in the Ohio River. He said at a time when the federal EPA is trying to weaken the Clean Water Act, ORSANCO needs to hold onto its standards and expect states to comply.

"We do need a federal level, an interstate waterway level and a state level, and those are not redundant,” Graddy said. “Those are coming at it from different directions, and we need everything we can muster to clean up the Ohio River."

Graddy added that dropping the standards not only threatens drinking water, but also recreation on the river and the resulting tourist revenue.

"Louisville, Northern Kentucky, Cincinnati, Owensboro have all made major investments to try to get people back to the river swimming and canoeing and boating,” he said. “And yet, we still have pollution problems that can make people sick and that can cause injury to aquatic life."

ORSANCO has argued that without having to focus on water-quality standards, its scant resources can be directed to other duties, such as public outreach and spill mitigation and response.

Mary Kuhlman, Public News Service - KY