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Vote Could Create Loopholes in Ohio River Protections

The Ohio runs through some of the most heavily industrialized parts of the country, and is one of the nation's most polluted rivers. (ORSANCO)
The Ohio runs through some of the most heavily industrialized parts of the country, and is one of the nation's most polluted rivers. (ORSANCO)
October 1, 2018

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — A vote this week will determine if West Virginia and seven other states will lose some pollution-control standards for the Ohio River.

The eight watershed states and the federal government belong to the Ohio River Sanitation Commission. ORSANCO sets uniform pollution standards for the 1,000-mile river, from Pittsburgh to the Mississippi.

On Thursday, commissioners will vote on a plan to scrap their rules and allow state and federal standards to take precedence. Gail Hesse, director of the Great Lakes Water Program at the National Wildlife Federation, said that would have a big impact on communities.

"In cities like Cincinnati, they've just made an enormous investment in their waterfront properties,” Hesse said. “And turning the clock back - Ohio could have one set of standards for its section of the river, but just across the river on the other side, Kentucky could have a completely different set of standards - is a bad idea."

Those in favor of the proposed change say each of the states has its own water quality standards, making ORSANCO redundant. The Ohio River is the source of drinking water for 5 million people.

Angie Rosser, executive director with the West Virginia Rivers Coalition is also a member of ORSANCO's Watershed Organization Advisory Committee. She said ORSANCO was created specifically because someone needed to oversee pollution controls for the entire river system. She added the plan to end that oversight is very unpopular, judging from public comments.

"Hundreds and hundreds of comments, and just a handful supporting the change,” Rosser said. “There are facilities, industrial facilities up and down the river, being able to discharge higher levels of pollution, relieving them of treatment costs."

Those in favor of keeping the rules as they are say ORSANCO helps the member states - where environmental agencies are often understaffed - by assessing pollution risks and setting control standards. And individual states may be unprepared to take over those jobs.

Dan Heyman, Public News Service - WV