This story comes from our partners at Ohio Valley ReSource, a regional journalism collaborative reporting on economic and social change in Kentucky, Ohio and West Virginia.
A multi-state commission charged with protecting the Ohio River heard testimony Monday evening in Pittsburgh that it should do more, not less to protect water quality.
In the first of three public hearings, the Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission, or ORSANCO, heard from more than a dozen people about proposed changes to the commission’s pollution control standards for industrial and municipal wastewater discharges into the river.
This round of public comments is the latest in a multi-year effort to update the commission’s pollution control standards for the Ohio River.
After thousands weighed in against it, ORSANCO in February scrapped an industry-backed proposal that would have eliminated its pollution control standards.
A new proposal keeps the standards, but makes adoption by ORSANCO’s eight member states optional. The proposal would require each state to provide the commission with time to comment on draft discharge permits issued along the Ohio River.
ORSANCO Director Richard Harrison said the new proposal balances the need by states for flexibility while being cognizant of the feedback received by the public largely in favor of the commission maintaining a role in pollution monitoring.
“It’s recognizing that states need flexibility to use alternative criteria,” Harrison said. “However, they need to make sure, working together collaboratively, that the discharges are not causing harm to the protected, designated uses of the river.”
More than a dozen people testified that ORSANCO should make adoption of the standards mandatory and should increase its pollution monitoring.
“We should be discussing ways to increase the pollution controls’ efficacy, not reduce its power and provide obvious holes for states to lower their own standards to create a race to the bottom in order to attract industry,” said Joshua Eisenfeld with Fair Shake Environmental Legal Services.
Many of those who spoke expressed concern that the region’s growing petrochemical infrastructure linked to the shale gas resources in the Marcellus and Utica would negatively impact the Ohio River’s water quality.
The river, a drinking water source for 5 million people, was designated the most polluted river in the United States by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2015.
Michele Fetting, program manager for the Pittsburgh-based BREATHE Project, urged ORSANCO to not only mandate state adoption of the pollution control standards, but expand pollution monitoring to consider pollutants from the oil and gas and petrochemical industries.
“It is critical that these are included in its pollution control standards,” she said. “We will never know the full impact of new and future pollution activities if we are not testing for contaminants from these industries.”
The proposal would require each state to provide the commission time to comment on draft discharge permits issued along the Ohio River.
Some expressed concerns that by making ORSANCO’s pollution control standards discretionary, it will fall on the commission to ensure permits are demonstrating equivalency using state-by-state criteria.
Robin Blakeman, with the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, said ORSANCO needs to provide transparency and accountability.
“It is important that ORSANCO establish baseline, uniform reference discharge standards and mechanisms for holding states accountable,” she said. “Although ORSANCO’s role will not change in developing standards, all member states should be strongly advised that these standards represent the best means of maintaining the designated uses of the river.”
ORSANCO is holding two more public hearings, one in Evansville, Indiana on April 4, and the other in Cincinnati, Ohio on April 8. The commission is accepting public comment through April 15.