Ohio River Pollution Standards at Risk if Multi-State Commission Disbands

Guest Blog by Gail Hesse, Water Program Director, National Wildlife Federation Great Lakes Regional Center

One of the major rivers in the U.S., the Ohio River, is in danger of losing critical oversight by a regional body charged with setting water quality standards and pollutant thresholds for the entire stretch of the river.

A multi-state commission, the Ohio River Valley Sanitation Commission, known as ORSANCO, is proposing to withdraw from its role in maintaining, administering, and periodically updating the current Pollution Control Standards required under the Clean Water Act. Water quality standards provide the legal benchmarks or thresholds that determine permit limits for wastewater discharges. ORSANCO’s proposal would defer that responsibility to the individual states bordering the river. If adopted, each state could set its own guidelines for pollutants and waste water discharges from factories and sewer systems as long as they meet the minimums set by the federal Clean Water Act.

ORSANCO issued its proposal in January and is expected to decide in early June whether to move forward.

Why does this matter? ORSANCO was created as an interstate water pollution control agency in part to ensure that water quality in one state doesn’t have a negative effect on the waters of another state. Resorting to administration of water quality standards within state boundaries may be an expedient approach to the member states, but in reality it is a failure to invest in the collaboration needed to think beyond jurisdictional boundaries and manage the river as a system.

The Ohio River begins at the confluence of the Allegheny and the Monongahela Rivers in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and flows west to Cairo, Illinois. The Ohio River provides drinking water for more than 5 million people and flows through or borders six states: Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia. The 981-mile Ohio River is the largest tributary by volume of the Mississippi River.

The Ohio River Basin, all of the land area and tributaries that drain to the river, covers nearly 200,000 square miles, covering portions of 15 states. It is home to more than 25 million people, 10% of the US population, many of whom depend on it as an economic engine, a source of drinking water, and a place of recreation. The Basin is a diverse mosaic of landscapes including highly urbanized metro areas, agricultural lands, national, state and local wildlife refuges and nature preserves, forest and riparian habitat, and wetlands. Nestled between the Mississippi and Atlantic flyways, the Ohio River Basin supports a diversity of migratory birds. The Basin’s natural resources provide vital habitat for fish and wildlife, including a number of threatened and endangered species such as paddlefish, Indiana bat, and 46 species of freshwater mussels.

Currently, ORSANCO develops water quality standards that the member states are supposed to adopt in their administration of Clean Water Act duties including permitting. ORSANCO’s rationale for their proposal is that they can save resources with eliminating their role in administering the Pollution Control Standards and the Pollution Control Standards do not serve a useful function. Neither of these positions has been supported with any analysis.

While understandable that ORSANCO seeks to conserve resources, deferring the responsibility to the states simply transfer the work to six states, thereby duplicating efforts six fold. With elimination of the ORSANCO PCS there will be significant investments of time by the states in the technical development of standards, the procedures for adoption, implementation of those standards and future triennial reviews as required by the Clean Water Act. There would be six public agencies conducting the work currently done by one entity.

Secondly, the Pollution Control Standards do provide a useful function by establishing a consistent framework for river-wide standards. The guiding principle of the Compact is that no pollution from an individual State shall “injuriously affect” interstate waters. A framework for inconsistent standards for the same water body will create confusion and economic harm for the regulated community as they seek to comply with different standards for different states. The proposed framework will also generate confusion for the greater public with the issuance of advisories, both fish advisories and recreational contact advisories. How is the public to interpret an advisory issued on one side of the river but not the other? What is in the best interest of public health?

ORSANCO provided tables of individual pollutants comparing ORSANCO and state standards. There are pollutants for which the ORSANCO standard is either more stringent than a member state standard or there simply is no state standard as well as examples where state standards are more stringent than ORSANCO or where ORSANCO has no standard. But overall, out of 1187 points of comparison, 440 points– or almost 40% — the ORSANCO standard is filling in a gap in state standards or providing a more protective standard.

There is wide variability in how the states have upheld their role with ORSANCO in integrating the ORSANCO and state standards despite being signatories for “…faithful cooperation in the control of future pollution in and abatement of existing pollution from the rivers, streams and water in the Ohio River basin…” as stated in Article 1 of the Compact that created the Commission in 1948. States do have challenges in the development, promulgation and implementation of the PCS. However, the missed opportunity is that ORSANCO and the member states should be using their collective leverage towards getting the PCS adopted among the states so that the Ohio River is managed as one river basin, not individual stream segments within state boundaries. A regional body speaking with one voice can wield significant influence in the interest of meeting beneficial uses and a cleaner river.

There is a need for leadership and cooperation by the Commission and its member states to honor the pledges made by each state for the oversight of pollution abatement and health of the entire Ohio River. The Commission Compact compels the member states to act on behalf of a water body beyond its jurisdictional waters, a unique role that demands actions beyond parochial interests.