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A multi-state commission charged with protecting the Ohio River voted Thursday to move forward with an industry-backed proposal to eliminate its water pollution control standards for industrial and municipal wastewater discharges into the river.

The Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission, known as ORSANCO, is supposed to ensure that the river is safe for drinking, fishing and recreation. Its commissioners from the federal government and eight states along the Ohio voted 14-to-6 at a board meeting in Louisville, KY to advance a proposal that would eliminate some pollution control standards.

LISTEN to Kara Holsopple and Inside Climate News reporter James Bruggers discuss the decision:

ORSANCO Director Richard Harrison said many of those protections are already addressed by the states, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the Clean Water Act.

“That has been the focus of the commission, to make sure our program in not redundant, that it’s the best use of our resources,” he said.

But according to one ORSANCO report, there are 188 instances where state and federal rules are not redundant to ORSANCO’s. Gail Hesse from the National Wildlife Federation said the commission should continue to do its job and enforce its standards.

“The vote is a shameful retreat for the officials charged with the environmental stewardship of the Ohio River,” she said.

In addition to providing drinking water to 5 million people, the Ohio River is known as a “working river” because of the hundreds of industrial and wastewater treatment plants along its 981 mile route.

Board members from Ohio and West Virginia voted for moving forward with eliminating the standards known as “Option 2.” But the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection representative voted “no.”

In an email to the Allegheny Front, the DEP explained its stance:

“Pennsylvania does not support Option 2 which will eliminate core elements of the Pollution Controls Standards as signatory members of the Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission.  The standards in place do not constitute an unnecessary regulatory burden and rather provide certainty for regulated entities along the length of the Ohio River while providing protection of designated uses. Changing the PCS as proposed in Option 2 would cause a number of regulatory issues that are unique to Pennsylvania, which could lead to regulatory uncertainty and possible diminished water quality in the Ohio River.“

The DEP email stated the agency prefers another proposal, Option 4, which includes a comprehensive analysis and review of the pollution control program.

Industry support of the plan to eliminate ORSANCO’s pollution control standards for the Ohio reflects efforts by the Trump administration to rollback environmental regulations.

Based on the vote to move forward with Option 2, ORSANCO plans to open another round of public review and comment. The board could make a final decision in early October.

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