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Gov. Pritzker Urged to Protect Ohio River Quality

Conservation groups say Ohio River water-quality standards are especially important for downstream communities such as Cairo, Illinois. (Ken Lund/Flickr)
Conservation groups say Ohio River water-quality standards are especially important for downstream communities such as Cairo, Illinois. (Ken Lund/Flickr)
June 4, 2019

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — Conservation groups are asking Gov. J.B. Pritzker to speak out this week against a proposal that could weaken clean-water protections for the Ohio River. The Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission will vote Thursday, June 6, on a plan that would make adoption of the agency's pollution-control standards along the river voluntary.

The argument is that ORSANCO's standards are redundant since states and the Environmental Protection Agency also set water-quality standards. However, Great Lakes Water Program Director for the National Wildlife Federation Gail Hesse counters that the collective oversight of the agency is needed.

"We need regional standards for a river that needs to be managed as a connected system,” Hesse said. “State boundaries are arbitrary, but the river is one. It's a very large river - it's 981 miles long. And we need to think of it as a single system."

ORSANCO has been around for more than 60 years, and commissioners are appointed by the governors of the eight states along the Ohio River. Illinois is home to 134 riverfront miles of the Ohio River, and about 10,000 square miles of the Ohio River Basin lie within the state.

Hesse said sewage contamination, farm runoff and toxic pollution are among the serious threats facing the river, which provides drinking water for 5 million people. She added the standards are especially crucial for downstream states such as Illinois.

"We continue to have new and emerging issues that the river faces, and so now is not the time to be retreating from those standards,” she said. “Despite the gains that we've seen over the course of the last 40 years of Clean Water Act program implementation, we still have challenges that we need to address."

ORSANCO has been working to adjust the standards for a couple of years, and an attempt to repeal the standards in 2018 was thwarted following public outcry. Hesse said she’s hopeful the governors of Ohio River states and commissioners will reject the proposed rollbacks, and instead work on strategies to help states meet clean-water goals.

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Mary Schuermann Kuhlman, Public News Service - IL