Point State Park seen from the river. Photo by TH Carlisle.

In a move that environmental advocates have called a grave setback for public health, the Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission (ORSANCO), has voted to roll back longstanding pollution controls along the Ohio River.

ORSANCO, an interstate regulatory body, will still maintain its own list of recommended water quality standards. But as of June 6, the commission’s nine member states are free to disregard the rules in favor of their own local regulations, which provides “needed flexibility,” according to a press release.

It’s a huge shift in practice: Since 1948, the Cincinnati-based ORSANCO has set water quality and discharge standards for the river that supersede state and local laws.

Commissioners say the organization still has significant oversight power, but dozens of regional and national environmental advocacy groups have decried the motion. They warned that it could have ruinous consequences for the roughly five million people who depend on the Ohio River for their drinking water.

“This decision by ORSANCO is mind-boggling, especially when considering more than 4,000 people spoke out against the proposal during a public comment period, and only nine people supported it,” said Matthew Stepp, vice president and chief of staff for PennFuture. “With the federal government already set on dismantling environmental laws and protections, now is not the time to weaken regional water quality standards along the Ohio River.”

Among those objecting during the public comment period was Fair Shake Environmental Legal Services, a law firm based in Highland Park, who wrote, “This will result in inconsistent standards between states, increasing the state’s vulnerability to political pressure, and facilitates a race to the bottom as states seek to become more attractive to industrial development.”

The Ohio River begins at the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela in Downtown Pittsburgh and flows through Ohio, West Virginia, Kentucky and Indiana, before merging with the Mississippi River in Cairo, Illinois. Streams and drainage from the river extend as far south as Tennessee and northern Georgia.

“This vote represents yet another retreat from protecting our water and it marks a low point for ORSANCO,” said Stepp. With this “significant step in the wrong direction,” he says, “history will not look kindly on those that turned a blind eye to clean water and the Ohio River.”

Pennsylvania’s representatives on the commission, all of whom voted in favor of the motion, are Pennsylvania Environmental Council President Davitt Woodwell, Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Patrick McDonnell and Charles Duritsa, retired southwest regional director at the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.

Speaking to NEXTpittsburgh, Woodwell explained that while member states are no longer required to follow the standards to the letter, they still have to prove their laws are consistent with the overall goals of the organization’s interstate compact.

“I would not have voted for this,” he said, “if I thought it would harm water quality on the Ohio River.”

How will the new regime of “comparable enforcement” work in practice? Woodwell says more specific guidelines will come from ORSANCO staff at the next meeting in October. “There are some issues to be worked out,” he says.

Michele Fetting, a program manager with the Breathe Project, says removing the legal requirements essentially removes the organization’s reason for existing. “It takes away ORSANCO’s teeth,” she told us. “It takes away their power to do what they were created to do.”

The vote comes at an especially perilous time for Western Pennsylvania’s water supply, as the region’s petrochemical industry (and the accompanying pollution it can bring) is set for a dramatic expansion. Without proper regulations in place, residents all along the river may be dealing with the aftermath long after the industries themselves have gone away.

“It’s an overwhelming task to reverse the damage of the petrochemical industry, and the oil and gas industry,” explains Fetting. “This is a real setback.”

Bill O'Toole

Bill O'Toole was a full-time reporter for NEXTpittsburgh until October, 2019. He previously reported in Myanmar.