Industry has left a dirty legacy along the Ohio River. We’re talking about toxins like PCBs, dioxins and mercury—discharged into the water by steel mills and the petroleum industry for decades. This week, we caught up with Judy Petersen, executive director of the Kentucky Waterways Alliance, to tell us more about how legacy pollution—and new pollution—impacts more of our lives than we might think.

The Allegheny Front: So systemwide, what are the legacy pollutants in the Ohio River, and how did they get there?

Judy Petersen: Well, the worst legacy pollutants in the Ohio River are mercury, PCBs and dioxin. Many of them got there decades ago with steel industry and petroleum industry releases into the Ohio, and many of those pollutants date back to before the Clean Water Act was passed.

AF: And what kinds of impacts do they have on the environment?

JP: Their main impact on the environment is fish consumption. What happens with those kinds of pollutants is they accumulate in the sediment, and all of the little insects and bugs that form the base of the food chain in the river get contaminated. Small fish eat those and bigger fish eat them, and when it moves up through the food chain, that’s called bio-accumulation. So the worst problems are with people who eat a lot of fish out of the Ohio. And I believe that there are disadvantaged people in many of these communities—like the West End here in Louisville—who are down there fishing on the Ohio River every day. And they are fishing to supplement their family’s diet. And we can’t lose sight of those people.

LISTEN: How Legacy Pollutants Impact the Ohio River

AF: And exposure to these toxins, like mercury, has been associated with nervous system issues, problems with developing fetuses and cancer. But if you don’t eat a lot of fish from the river, should you still be concerned?

JP: First of all, there is commercial fishing in the Ohio. There can be fish sticks at your local food store that came from Ohio River fish. But we should care for a whole lot of different reasons. We should care because of all the wildlife that are going to eat those fish, [like] the eagles we see coming back throughout the Ohio River Basin. One of the reasons some of those pollutants were originally banned was because we saw the devastating consequences that they had on the reproductive viability of eagle and osprey and hawks.

AF: On the Hudson River in New York, there was a major issue with PCBs, and it was addressed by dredging that portion of the river. Is the Ohio to that level of pollution, or is it more like a “sleeping giant”—that is, we don’t want to disturb what’s there by dredging it up?

JP: Once you start dredging the river, you stir up all those contaminated sediments and they can remix with the water. So in most cases, it just makes sense to let nature take its course. I think PCBs and dioxins are a little different than mercury. We’re not really discharging PCBs and dioxins—those are legacy contaminants. Mercury is also a bit of a legacy contaminant, but what we’re worried about is new and continued discharges of mercury into the river when parts of the river are already contaminated. If we tip that scale even further, the entire river will be contaminated. Then, we’ve done a disservice for not just fish consumption, but possibly for some of the smaller drinking water systems that rely on the Ohio River. Mercury is not an easy thing to get out. If you live in Louisville or Pittsburgh, they have sophisticated water treatment. If you live in a smaller town, and there is too much mercury in the river, it’s going to escalate their treatment costs enormously. They may or may not be able to afford to treat for mercury. It’s one of the reasons why we’re actively fighting new discharges of mercury into the river. A number of years ago, ORSANCO [the Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission], an eight state agency, said that there would be no more discharges of mercury above a certain level into the Ohio River. And they gave industries 10 years to comply with that. Come 2013, they found that they weren’t ready to comply. They have indefinitely extended that waiver, and they have given that responsibility back to the individual states. As a headwaters state, what that means for Pennsylvania may not be the same thing as for a downstream state like Kentucky.

According to the EPA, the Ohio River is the most polluted river in the country and has held that ranking for the last seven years. In 2013, industry discharged more than 24 million tons of pollutants—more than double what industries dumped into the second-ranked Mississippi River.

AF: In other words, you’re receiving whatever is coming downstream.

JP: Yep—we all live downstream, [even if] it’s a little bitty stream that feeds into a larger stream that feeds into the Ohio River. If you’re a major river city like Louisville, then you live downstream from Pittsburgh and Wheeling and Cincinnati and big and little towns that are upstream of both the Ohio as well as the Allegheny and Monongahela.

AF: How does legacy and new pollution impact the Ohio River Basin’s future, economically and with regard to recreation?

JP: I don’t want to get so far into the pollution scenario that we lose sight of the fact that the Ohio River is cleaner than it has been in many, many decades. People cleaning up all the sewer overflows and the Clean Water Act that put limits on many of these kinds of industrial facilities that discharge into the Ohio—all of those have had an enormous impact. I just want to make sure we don’t start sliding backwards because the job is not done.

AF: And the Ohio is still ranked as the most polluted river in the country.

JP: It does have that ranking. And that is based on data in a particular index called the Toxic Release Inventory. But believe it or not, there is one facility in Indiana that discharges a lot of nitrates that puts the Ohio over and above all those other rivers. So there are things we can do to clean it up. And I think that people need to stand back up and demand that we have a clean environment and say that this is one of the basic government functions that we all need.

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Judy Petersen is executive director of the Kentucky Waterways Alliance.