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Cleaning up the Ohio River

posted Apr 17, 2015, 8:50 AM by Kathleen Tyner
WV Rivers' Summary of Concerns

Technical assistance and content provided by Kentucky Waterways Alliance.

The Ohio River isn’t clean.  It’s cleaner than it was 40 years ago, but it isn’t clean–far from it. We want it cleaner.  To get the Ohio River cleaner, we need to continue to improve and enforce clean water protections.

Right now, the Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission (ORSANCO), which sets pollution control standards for the Ohio River, has proposed some changes to their standards, and some of what they’ve proposed will not help make the Ohio River cleaner.

The document outlining the proposed changes is quite dense.  Below, you will find WV Rivers' and Kentucky Waterways Alliance's primary concerns.

Issue 1:  They've proposed to remove a ban on mixing zones for bioaccumulative chemicals of concern (BCCs) for any facilities existing prior to 2003.  They are maintaining the ban on facilities from after 2003.  The Commission is also proposing to put each state in charge of variance requests.  BCCs are toxic and accumulate in aquatic species and humans.  Mercury is a known BCC, and humans who eat fish with high mercury levels in their fish tissue can be significantly affected by the toxin. Birds and other wildlife who eat fish or mussels from the river are also affected. Here’s what’s wrong with mercury (from this article):

Our Concern: The ban was passed in 2003 and was set to take effect in 2013, but in 2010, ORSANCO created a variance procedure to allow facilities to temporarily bypass the 2013 deadline.  Then, in 2013, they pushed the deadline for compliance with the ban back to October 2015 (this year).   Now, they’re backpedaling even more, suggesting that states themselves should decide if mixing zone bans are appropriate, and enforce them.

The Commission’s proposal to roll back this ban is a major concern, especially since many sections of the Ohio already show concerning levels of mercury in fish tissue. The state of West Virginia has already listed the Ohio River as impaired for fish consumption due to high mercury levels. This means that humans, and especially children and women who are pregnant or plan to bear a child soon, have to limit their intake of fish from the Ohio. WV Fish Comsumption Advisory.

We also know that many power plants and facilities did little to nothing to comply with the ban.  Why should we sacrifice our drinking water supply and food supply so that industry can continue to be profitable?  We shouldn’t.

WV Rivers wants the mixing zone ban to be upheld, and for all facilities to be required to comply by the October 2015 deadline or face fines.  They had ten years already, plus another two after the Commission extended the deadline in 2013.  Deadlines are not created so they can continually be extended or changed–STICK TO THEM.  Oh, and we want the variance procedure gone as well.  Enough with allowing industry to make excuses and shirk their responsibilities!

Issue 2: The Commission is also considering whether they need to modify the existing mercury standard for the acceptable concentration of mercury in water.  They’re specifically requesting input on whether the existing mercury standard should never be exceeded, or if alternatives should be considered, such as an average, a tiered standard, or others.  The Commission’s rationale is that EPA recently removed their national mercury standard.

Our Concern: It’s one thing to backtrack on the mixing zone ban, but it’s even worse for the Commission to give the appearance that it isn’t certain about the mercury standard.  As a result, power companies and other facilities are attempting to shirk their responsibility to reduce their mercury discharge by claiming that ORSANCO doesn’t even know whether their standard is valid.  WV Rivers doesn’t disagree that the mercury standard may need to be revisited, given EPA did remove the national standard. However, given the mercury issues in the Ohio, ORSANCO must maintain the existing standard as is, until it is prepared to propose a more stringent standard to protect aquatic life and human health. ORSANCO cannot backslide on water quality protections.

Issue 3: The Commission has proposed to adopt EPA’s new ammonia criteria that is protective of mussels and other aquatic life.

Our concern: A positive (mostly)! We support the Commission’s decision to adopt EPA’s new ammonia criteria, particularly given it emphasizes protections for freshwater mussels.  The Ohio River is home to many native freshwater mussel species, a number of which are endangered. A minor concern is that ORSANCO has proposed to use a different ammonia criterion for when mussels are present versus when they are absent. If mussels are absent, then the limit will be less protective of water quality.  We want the mussels as well as their potential and past habitat to be protected, so we’ll be pushing ORSANCO to utilize only the mussels present criteria, which will be more stringent.

Issue 4: The Commission has proposed to clarify that the temperature criterion (110 degrees F) to protect human health applies anywhere that public access is possible, both inside or outside of a mixing zone. Currently, the language says “any location where public access is possible.”

Our concern: We supports this clarification. Originally, the Commission hinted that the power industry wanted the temperature raised to 116 degrees F, but we fought back and suggested the current number was appropriate. In fact, we urge the Commission to assure us that the aquatic life temperature criterion, which is more stringent than the 110 degree F human health standard, will always be met anywhere on the river, including inside or outside of a mixing zone.

Issue 5: The Commission is requesting input on all 130 individual water quality criteria, specifically, the frequency and duration values for acute, chronic, human health (carcinogen and non-carcinogen), and fish consumption criteria.

Our concern: We certainly don’t have the capacity to evaluate all 130 criteria for the soundness of their frequency and duration values.  We’d imagine very few, if any, non-profit organizations do have the capacity.  In fact, we’d guess the only entities capable of submitting detailed technical support on this request would be industry. It is difficult to understand why ORSANCO would put such an unrealistic ask on the table. It would be much more appropriate if ORSANCO specified several pollutants that they were looking at modifying, and to request comment on those. Or an acceptable alternative would be to publish a comparison with the numbers, frequency and duration for pollutants specified in the most recent Nationally Recommended Criteria (USEPA 304(a)) document.

ORSANCO has been invaluable over the years for helping improve the water quality of the Ohio River. Activities that went on historically mostly do not occur any more – primarily because they were the types of pollution that could easily be seen in the river. But just because the water quality is improved doesn’t mean it’s clean. Much pollution still occurs on a daily basis, but the vast majority of pollution is not readily visible to the naked eye (though some certainly does occur). ORSANCO needs to stand by its mission, enforce its standards, and continue to move towards the Clean Water Act goal of eliminating the discharge of pollution into waterways.

So, what can you do?

Spread the word, share this page.  Let people know that we need ORSANCO to protect the health of the environment and the citizens of the Basin over the profits of industry.

Sign our petitionRaise your voice and be heard, NO MORE mercury in the Ohio River!