July 11, 2018, by Nick Swartsell in (Cincinnati) City Beat. For seven decades, the Ohio River Water Sanitation Commission has overseen the health of the roughly 1,000-mile-long waterway that provides drinking water to more than 5 million people. But it may soon shed many of its pollution standards.
Two decades before the Environmental Protection Agency, an eight-state commission looked out for the health of the nearly 1,000-mile stretch of water that defines Cincinnati and provides more than five million people with drinking water. But it could soon walk back from a key part of that role.
Residents of Greater Cincinnati and elsewhere will get to weigh in later this month as the Ohio River Valley Sanitation Commission, or ORSANCO, takes final steps to back away from many of its pollution control standards it has provided states along the river.
A majority of the commission says many of the standards are redundant — rules from federal and state agencies are currently keeping water quality in the river at the level ORSANCO wants to see independent of its criteria. But critics of the proposal say a significant number of the standards aren’t duplicated by federal or state agencies and that the commission needs to continue doing everything it can to ensure water quality, especially as the Trump administration works to roll back environmental regulations.
The commission began a regular review process of its standards back in January with an ad-hoc committee and calls for public input. Now, before the commission formally adopts its rollback on pollution standards, it is holding another round of public input, including a public hearing July 26 at the Holiday Inn near Cincinnati International Airport in Erlanger, Kentucky.
Formed in 1948, Cincinnati-based ORSANCO has worked to make the Ohio River clean and safe in part by setting standards for the maximum levels of various pollutants in the river. The commission’s standards have long been used by states to ensure that the Ohio River is clean enough for recreation, drinking and other uses.
But now commissioners say that the federal EPA, founded in 1970, the 1972 federal Clean Water Act and state environmental agencies have made those standards redundant.
“The commission is considering this because, the thought is, with the robust state programs and the U.S. EPA’s program, there are better uses of our resources than really having a potentially redundant third layer of standards,” ORSANCO Executive Director Richard Harrison told WVXU earlier this year. “Our compact is not changing. I’m confident that our commission is not going to move forward with something that will harm the water quality of the Ohio River.”
Some environmental groups, and a minority of the commission, however, strongly disagree. Some commissioners with ORSANCO have expressed “grave concern” with the move and argue that eliminating the body’s standards when it comes to ambient levels of various pollutants can only hinder efforts to maintain and improve the river’s health.
“ORSANCO, as a federally-sanctioned compact among several signatory states, possesses a degree of insulation from the vagaries of the political process, and is able to research, develop, propose and adopt standards tailored to the specific needs of the river in an atmosphere that stresses sound science and data-driven policy,” dissenting commissioners said in their minority report opposing the elimination of the rules.
The minority cited recent moves by Congress and the Trump administration that they say raise concerns about commitment to environmental protection. The elimination of the federal Stream Protection Rule and proposals by the EPA to revise guidelines for what counts as protected bodies of water, they say, “reflect that the standards and scope of the Clean Water Act and regulations adopted pursuant to that Act are neither static, nor necessarily as broad or protective, as might be needed to address the specific needs of the Ohio River Basin.”
There are roughly 600 permitted companies and other groups discharging into the Ohio River. The federal Clean Water Act, administered by the EPA, recommends maximum levels of pollutants these entities are allowed to discharge. States, however, make their own standards, which the EPA then approves. Continue reading