Industry Wanted This Ohio River Commission to Stop Setting Pollution Standards. It Almost Gave in.

The commission was under pressure to drop its standard-setting authority and let each state act on its own. But what happens upstream affects everyone.

In December, nine coal barges broke loose on the Ohio River, and several sank along with their cargo at a dam near Louisville. Credit: James Bruggers
In December, nine coal barges broke loose on the Ohio River, and several sank along with their cargo at a dam near Louisville. Credit: James Bruggers

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An Ohio River commission that represents eight states lining the waterway and its tributaries voted Thursday to keep its authority to set regional water pollution standards, rather than ceding that power to each individual state.

It was a victory for environmental advocates at a time when the federal government has been rolling back protections on pollution from industries along the industrial corridor.

Last summer, under pressure from industries and power utilities, the Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission (ORSANCO) had taken a preliminary vote to abandon its pollution control standards.

It changed course on Thursday, endorsing instead a compromise proposal that would give states more flexibility to decide whether or not use the standards, said commission member Tom FitzGerald, a Louisville environmental attorney. Under the compromise, the commission’s staff, which reviews all state water quality permits, would also make those reviews more rigorous, he said.


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“This is a workable approach” that reflects a reality that some Ohio River states are already ignoring ORSANCO’s standards, while preserving the agency’s ability to set “gold standard” guidance, FitzGerald said.

The river, which runs for 981 miles from Pittsburgh to Cairo, Illinois, where it joins the Mississippi River, is a drinking water source for about 5 million people and is increasingly a recreational resource.

It’s also still a heavily industrialized river, and industries including electric utilities had argued that ORSANCO standards were not needed because each state has its own standards and an obligation to comply with the federal Clean Water Act. Some of the states had also wanted ORSANCO to back off and focus only on research and monitoring.

Environmental advocates and drinking water utilities had urged the agency to not handcuff itself by getting out of the standard-setting business.

Toxic Waters: River Pollution Sources from Coal Plants

Some climate advocates had worried that without ORSANCO’s standards, coal-burning power plants along the river would continue operating longer than they otherwise would. The river still has 22 coal-fired power plants, roughly one every 45 miles, according to the Energy Information Agency.

“I am certainly encouraged,” said Madeline Fleisher, a senior attorney with the Environmental Law & Policy Center. “At this point, we all need to just take a look and make sure we are confident that ORSANCO will maintain a robust role in ensuring the health of the river.”

The new proposal will require a new public comment period and further deliberation by commission members, ORSANCO Executive Director Richard Harrison said.