River at Risk? Vote Expected on Ohio River Water-Quality Standards

(KEN LUND/FLICKR)
(Ken Lund/Flickr)

COLUMBUS, Ohio - Conservation groups are asking Gov. Mike DeWine 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 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, Gail Hesse, Great Lakes water program director for the National Wildlife Federation, countered that the agency's collective oversight is needed.

"We need regional standards for a river that needs to be managed as a connected system," she 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. Ohio has 500 of the riverfront miles, and about 29,000 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 to the river, which provides drinking water for 5 million people.

"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 them in 2018 was thwarted following public outcry. Hesse said she thinks cooperation among states is the most effective way to protect the Ohio River for communities and wildlife.

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