I hate writing about regulatory issues, sometimes. They’re often complicated and arcane, hard to explain and full of competing interests, many of which may be legitimate. You feel like you have to give reams and reams of backstory in order for the everyday reader to get a true picture.

At some point, though, you have to cut through the fog of data and research and get to the bottom line. Well, here’s the bottom line for this story:

The commission charged with controlling and abating pollution in the Ohio River has punted its job to the states, and the end result will likely be more mercury and other chemicals in our river.

The backstory below.

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First of all, here are some things you need to know.

  • (directly from their web site) “The Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission (ORSANCO), was established on June 30, 1948 to control and abate pollution in the Ohio River Basin. ORSANCO is an interstate commission representing eight states and the federal government. Member states include: Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and West Virginia.”
  • For many years, companies discharging chemicals into the river were allowed to measure the effects of their discharges some distance downstream from the actual location of their discharge, in order to allow the chemicals to be diluted by mixing with the river water (“mixing zones”). This means, of course, that at the point of discharge, the chemicals in the water could greatly exceed the recommended limits for those chemicals.
  • Certain chemicals, including mercury, are bio-accumulative. In other words, once ingested, they build up over time in the organisms that consume them. In a river or lake setting, this means that if mercury is continually present in the water, it will build up in the fish swimming in that water, and be transferred to any other beings that eat those fish, including humans.
  • Mercury (symbol Hg) is best-known as the silver liquid that used to be inside thermometers. According to the World Health Organization, “Elemental and methylmercury are toxic to the central and peripheral nervous systems. The inhalation of mercury vapour can produce harmful effects on the nervous, digestive and immune systems, lungs and kidneys, and may be fatal.”
  • In 2003, ORSANCO ruled that from that point forward, any NEW companies discharging chemicals into the river would not be allowed to use mixing zones, but would be measured “at the end of the pipe,” or at the point of discharge into the river. The only way for newly-discharging company to avoid this would be to request a variance from ORSANCO. To this date, only two such variances have been granted.
  • In that same ruling, however, ORSANCO gave companies that were already using mixing zones for their chemical discharge until 2013 to stop. In 2013, that coming prohibition was extended to 2015. So, companies have known for twelve years that their discharge had to be reduced to the point of compliance at the end of the pipe. No more mixing zones for anyone after October 2015.
  • Then, just as the mixing zone prohibition was about to go into effect, ORSANCO dropped it. Instead, they charged the individual states with removing mixing zones “as soon as practicable.” And, they left the management of the variance process up to each individual state.

In research for this article, I spoke with Richard Harrison, the executive director of ORSANCO, and Lisa Cochran, the communications coordinator. They were glad to discuss the decision, and were very helpful and open in answering my questions.

Their stated reason for doing this, in both their press release and in our conversation, is that this way is more efficient and more practical. Why? Because each situation is different, and the state regulators know the situations better, and can enforce the standards as part of their permitting review.

But as nice and thoughtful as that sounds … it is the wrong decision. And here’s why.

The whole point of having a single pollution-management body for the entire river is that it’s a river. What West Virginia does (or doesn’t do) has a direct effect on us, because we’re downstream. If Kentucky cleans up its part of the river and cuts mercury to nothing, but Ohio lets its power plants dump tons (yes, tons) of mercury into the river, then our good work is all for naught. We need the same standards all along the river for them to be effective.

And continuing to allow mixing zones, where the chemical levels can be many times as high? Guess what: fish swim through those zones anyway, and consume the chemicals, and send those chemicals up the food chain.

Of course, we haven’t even talked about the fact that when the river is higher than the water table, river water replenishes the ground water … chemicals and all. That water is then used for irrigation, industry, and drinking water.

Finally, there is the possibility that some of the state regulatory bodies are either understaffed, or “captured” – controlled by the very industries they are supposed to regulate. It only takes a few regulators “looking the other way” for the levels of mercury and other chemicals to actually go up through lax monitoring and permitting, in addition to the ongoing use of mixing zones.

Is this the worst regulatory decision I’ve ever read about? Is it going to immediately lead to massive increases in mercury in the Ohio? No, and no. It is possible that every state agency will be tough, will enforce the highest of standards, and will get rid of mixing zones.

But we had all of that already with the original plan, and ORSANCO has needlessly punted on their responsibilities, and put us all at risk. It is a bad decision, that could turn into a further collection of bad results, and it didn’t have to be this way.

ORSANCO handed us this Halloween treat, and we’re going to have to deal with the trick, for many years to come.

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Photo by eutrophication&hypoxia

Bruce Maples
Bruce Maples has been involved in politics and activism since 2004, when he became active in the Kerry Kentucky movement. He has been President, Vice-President, and Treasurer of the Metro Democratic Club, and has served on the Democratic Party Executive Committee in Louisville. He began blogging in 2004, and currently operates two personal blogs (BruceMaples.com and brucewriter.com). He founded Forward Kentucky in the wake of the state elections in 2015, and expanded it in the summer of 2016. He has lived in Louisville since 1992 with his wife and two sons.