Twelve years ago, the Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission, known as ORSANCO, banned companies located along the Ohio River from releasing large amounts of mercury into the water through the use of “mercury dilution zones.” Businesses along the river were given a decade -- and an additional 2-year extension -- to comply with the 2003 standard. The mixing zone ban is scheduled to go into effect this year, but dozens of coal plants and factories in Ohio, Kentucky, West Virginia and elsewhere have yet to comply.
Now industry representatives are asking ORSANCO to eliminate or create exemptions to the ban. Environmental groups are asking ORSANCO to stick to the original ban enacted more than a decade ago.
“ORSANCO should hold firm to its original decision to ban companies from using mixing zones, rather than cave to pressure from businesses that have failed to take even initial steps to comply with these clean water standards,” said Madeline Fleisher, staff attorney at the Environmental Law & Policy Center’s office in Columbus, Ohio.
Even in a large river like the Ohio, dilution isn’t a solution to mercury pollution because it still accumulates in fish and poses a danger to the people who consume them. Mercury is a known neurotoxin that causes brain and nerve damage to children and developing fetuses. The Ohio River is the public water supply for more than 5 million people, and it ranks at the top of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s list of dirtiest rivers, in part because of high mercury levels.
“The commission needs to keep its focus on the true threat to human health, which is the total level of discharges of mercury to the Ohio River,” said Judy Petersen, executive director of Kentucky Waterways Alliance. “Dilution doesn’t do anything to lower that number. In 2013 there was 380 pounds of mercury discharged into the Ohio compared to 61 pounds in 2007. That’s the wrong direction for the Ohio, the people and our wildlife.”
The ban enacted a dozen years ago was intended to prevent accumulated mercury from reaching harmful levels. Environmental groups are urging the Commission to now enforce that ban.
“People in the Ohio River Valley are saying, ‘clean water can’t wait',” said Angie Rosser, executive director of the West Virginia Rivers Coalition. “Residents are fed up with delays and excuses to keep dangerous toxins like mercury out of their water supply.”
ORSANCO is a 27-member group composed of governor-appointed individuals from an eight-state region and three federal government representatives. More than 16,000 residents throughout the region offered their comments to ORSANCO before the May 14 deadline.
ORSANCO’s technical committee will evaluate the public comments and is expected to make recommendations to the board by late summer. The full Commission is slated to announce its new pollution standards at its scheduled October 8 meeting.