Ohio River May Lose Its Regional Water Quality Standards, Vote Suggests

An industry-supported plan would end an 8-state commission’s decades-long role in setting river pollution standards. A preliminary vote suggests it may succeed.

The Ohio River has 26 coal-fired power plants along its banks, about one every 38 miles. For decades, a regional commission has overseen standards for water pollution that crosses state lines. Credit: Saul Loeb/Getty Images

The Ohio River has 26 coal-fired power plants along its banks, about one every 38 miles. For decades, a regional commission has overseen standards here for water pollution, which often crosses state lines. Credit: Saul Loeb/Getty Images

An eight-state commission that oversees water quality along the Ohio River, the drinking water source for 5 million people, appears ready to strip itself of the power to set pollution-control standards for the 981-mile waterway.

Six of the eight states on the commission signaled in a preliminary vote Thursday that they'll go along with an industry-supported plan that would leave standard-setting authority to the individual states and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. A final vote could come in October.

The debate over the commission, known as ORSANCO, has mirrored Trump administration efforts to roll back pollution controls and yield more authority to states on environmental matters.

"The Clean Water Act has all the vigor you need," said Toby Frevert, an Illinois representative on the commission who chaired the committee that recommended the plan. "It has all the protections," he said, adding that "competing regulatory bodies confuse the public."

Climate advocates worry the plan will lead to weakened water standards that will allow coal-burning power plants along the river to continue operating longer than they otherwise would. The river has 26 coal-fired power plants, roughly one every 38 miles.

Rich Cogan, executive director of the non-profit Ohio River Foundation, described the vote as an "emasculation of ORSANCO's purpose and its powers."

Despite improved water quality in recent decades, just three years ago, the commission found that the Ohio River topped all rivers in the nation for the amount of pollution dumped into it by industries.

Commission Standards Often Tougher than EPA

The commission has a long history of setting standards for hazardous chemicals and heavy metals from coal-burning power plants and other industries, often at more stringent levels than state or federal standards. The states are currently supposed to follow ORSANCO standards, even when they're stricter than the EPA's.

Electric utilities and other industries have been pressing the commission to end its role in restricting the dumping of toxic wastewater into the river, arguing there's too much bureaucracy already. Instead, they want the commission to stick to research and monitoring.

Drinking water and environmental advocates have worried that if the commission no longer sets water quality standards, then each state would be left to decide how clean the river should be, under provisions of the Clean Water Act. There would be no regional recourse if the EPA loosened its regulations.

In fact, the Trump administration has put on hold EPA's first Clean Water Act rules in a generation to curb toxic wastewater discharges from power plants while the agency reconsiders them.

Map: Coal-Fired Power Plants on the Ohio River

Kentucky environmental attorney Tom FitzGerald, who represents the federal government on the commission and was appointed by former President Barack Obama, said now "isn't the time for retreat" given the uncertainty of environmental regulations at the national level. He also said the commission had not fully researched one of the main points of contention—the differences that exist between state, federal and ORSANCO standards.

In moving toward limiting its role, ORSANCO "has called into question" the commission's commitment to maintain its obligations under a decades-old compact among the eight states, FitzGerald said.

Downstream States Supported the Plan

Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia signed the compact in 1948, well before the EPA was created. ORSANCO has 27 commissioners; each state picks three and the U.S. president appoints three more. There are four vacancies now, and not all commissioners attended the meeting in Louisville.

Thursday's preliminary vote was 14 to six. Only New York's delegation fully opposed the plan. The two Pennsylvania commissioners were divided, and two federal representatives also voted no.

After the vote, a representative for an advisory committee of drinking water utilities said he was disappointed by the commission's move.

"The river doesn't know political boundaries," said Bruce Whitteberry, an assistant superintendent with the Greater Cincinnati Water Works. He said he's worried that the commission's action will undermine efforts for states to work together.

ORSANCO's executive director, Richard Harrison, has said that no matter the outcome, the commission will continue to work with states and the EPA on water quality issues.

The commission collected more than 900 pages of public comments before Thursday's vote and now intends to seek a second round of public input.

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