The Ohio River should have federal protections similar to the Great Lakes and the Chesapeake Bay, according to a new report from the advocacy group, American Rivers.
The Ohio is the main drinking water source for more than 5 million Americans. It flows southwest from Pittsburgh through or along the border of six states for 980 miles, and empties into the Mississippi River in Cairo, Illinois.
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Heather Taylor-Miesle, senior vice president of advocacy and regional conservation for American Rivers, said the train derailment in East Palestine, which sent a plume of chemicals down the Ohio, illustrates the need for more attention to the watershed.
Her group placed the Ohio second out of 10 on their annual list of America’s Most Endangered Rivers.
“One of the biggest things that we’re asking for is more federal investments so that we can have good monitoring systems so that the people who are most impacted can be protected,” Taylor-Miesle said.
Good River: Stories of the Ohio: A series about the environment, economy and culture of the Ohio River watershed from seven nonprofit newsrooms spanning five states.
The challenges facing the Ohio River
Legacy pollution from coal mining, manufacturing, and power plants and the buildout of the petrochemical industry along its banks are all points of pressure for the Oho River, according to the American Rivers report. Flooding from climate change is an emerging threat.
Of the 274,000 miles of rivers and streams that are assessed by state agencies in the Ohio River watershed, 40 percent are impaired, according to Richard Harrison, executive director and chief engineer of ORSANCO, the Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission. The interstate commission is tasked with monitoring and controlling pollution along the entire length of the river.
Harrison said ORSANCO owns the system used to detect pollutants at drinking water intakes along the Ohio River, which was employed during the emergency response after the East Palestine spill. The 16 pieces of equipment are 10 years old and nearing the end of their useful life.
“We need significant funding to the tune of 4 to $5 million to replace that equipment,” Harrison said. “Our annual budget is $3.9 million.”
He said the Ohio River Basin has missed out on federal dollars from the 2021 Infrastructure Law because it doesn’t have the federal recognition of waterways like the Delaware River or the Great Lakes, which receive regular federal funding far beyond the $1.4 million dollars ORSANCO receives from the Environmental Protection Agency each year.
Harrison said the additional federal investment could be a game-changer for the Ohio River, helping to pay for upgraded pollution monitoring, acid mine drainage treatment in the watershed, and better detection of nonpoint source pollution into the river, like the drainage from agriculture and other runoff which leads to algal blooms.
Harrison said new proposed regulations from EPA for PFAS “forever chemicals” in drinking water will mean more monitoring and regulatory work is needed on the Ohio River.
“Absolutely additional resources are needed for that,” Harrison said.
A focus on solutions
Heather Taylor-Meisle, who grew up along the Ohio River, said it has always been a “working river,” and that the key to making the river work for industry and residents is by striking the right balance.
“There is no reason that we can’t continue to be a real economic driver for our region at the same time that we are a center of recreation and that we can give those 5 million people really healthy drinking water,” she said
Taylor-Miesle said the America’s Most Endangered Rivers list shines a national spotlight on the issue, and that this is a critical moment for the Ohio River.
“The biggest thing is that there is opportunity for immediate progress. And so it was kind of a no-brainer for our list,” she said.
The American Rivers report advocates for Congress to designate the Ohio River as a protected water system and to fund the Ohio River Basin Alliance (ORBA) Restoration Plan, which is being drafted by stakeholders in the watershed, including ORSANCO and local watershed groups.
Taylor-Miesle said she hopes placing the Ohio River on the most endangered list will help boost the work of the bipartisan Ohio River Caucus in Congress, which is working to draw attention to the needs and importance of the Ohio River Basin region.
“We’re raising the profile of this river,” she said. “Not just talking about its challenges, but talking about this opportunity. And I think that’s what brings hope and optimism to this entire story.”