Pittsburgh downtown image by Brian Cohen.

There are points on the map where the Ohio River stops belonging to one state and becomes the official responsibility of another. But the river’s water, and the pollution that may flow within it, takes no notice of state borders.

Currently, an interstate commission in charge of managing the 981-mile Ohio River is considering rolling back longstanding pollution standards. It’s a move environmental groups say could have ruinous consequences for the Pittsburgh and much of the Midwest.

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.

Since 1948, the Cincinnati-based Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission, or ORSANCO, has set water quality and discharge standards for the river that supersede state and local laws.

The organization normally reviews and updates pollution standards every three years. But in June of this year, the commission signaled that they were ready to strike down their pollution guidelines altogether, essentially leaving it to different states to manage their portion of the river.

While many expected a final vote to come this week, the commission announced on Oct. 4 that they would hold several more months of study and public comment.

The move was welcomed by local environmental experts, who say the multi-state guidelines are a key piece of protecting the health of the river.

“The standards in place do not constitute an unnecessary regulatory burden and rather provide certainty for regulated entities along the length of the Ohio River while providing protection of designated uses,” says Lauren Fraley, community relations coordinator for the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection’s Pittsburgh office.

Changing the pollution control standards, Fraley says, “would cause a number of regulatory issues that are unique to Pennsylvania, which could lead to regulatory uncertainty and possible diminished water quality in the Ohio River.”

The DEP’s ORSANCO representative was unavailable for comment. But Fraley said the department supports the normal procedure of periodically reviewing and updating existing rules.

In Pittsburgh, the issue has implications for both public health and the local economy. As the health of our local rivers has steadily improved, the rehabilitation of riverfront property has played a critical role in the revitalization of communities all over the city. Polluted rivers could threaten that hard-won progress.

“Rolling back standards, in general, would shift the burden of developing protections to the respective states and the EPA,” says Steve Hvozdovich, PA campaigns director for Clean Water Action, based in Pittsburgh. “That can be problematic because you’d end up with a patchwork of protections that could range from good to bad and those bad ones that are lenient on polluters discharging into the river could create costly impacts to the health and water quality of river.”

ORSANCO will discuss the proposal at their February meeting in Covington, Kentucky.

Bill O'Toole

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