Environment

After facing a backlash of public criticism, the interstate commission tasked with protecting water quality along the Ohio River has unveiled a plan to keep pollution control standards in place while giving more flexibility to states.

As a friendly reminder, consider that Louisville pulls its drinking water from the Ohio River. That’s the same river that receives discharges from coal-fired power plants, industrial facilities and even the occasional raw sewage.

To help regulate that, the states bordering the 1,000 mile river got together and formed the Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission, more commonly known as ORSANCO.

ORSANCO’s mission is to study, monitor and protect the water quality of the Ohio River. So people got pretty upset last year when they heard the commission was considering removing the river’s pollution control standards.

Executive Director Richard Harrison said the commission listened to those comments and went back to the drawing board.

The result is a compromise that takes the commission back to its core purpose, keeps the pollution control standards in place, but also allows states the space to implement their own water quality programs, Harrison said.

“What is fundamental to this proposal is that instead of focusing on the formulas states use to calculate their [pollution] limits, this proposal focuses on the end result of that discharge,” he said.

So here’s how that works: ORSANCO will continue to use the pollution control standards as a benchmark, but will focus on making sure the river is safe for “designated uses” such as recreation, aquatic life and drinking water.

To do that, ORSCANCO’s staff of 20 will continue to assess the health of the river with water quality monitoring and fish surveys. The data collected by ORSANCO will help states better understand how discharges are impacting the river.

So far, both environmental advocates and Kentucky officials say the compromise shows promise.

Director of Kentucky Waterways Alliance Ward Wilson said there is value in maintaining the river-wide standards and he’s pleased that’s included in the compromise. Still, Wilson wants to see that the new plan includes transparency.

“So if a state wants to vary their water quality standards from the Ohio River standards set for ORSANCO, we’d like that to be clear and the reason for that to be clear,” he said.

Kentucky Division of Water Director Peter Goodmann said the reason the commission considered removing the pollution control standards in the first place was because some states felt those pollution control standards were redundant.

“All of those standards that the states are using, and ORSANCO pollution control standards, have been deemed by [the Environmental Protection Agency] to be protective of the river,” Goodmann said.

But Goodmann said the latest plan clarifies the process for states to implement their water quality programs while maintaining ORSCANCO’s advisory role.

“This is about protecting the designated uses and you measure that by monitoring the river and making those assessments,” he said.

The Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission plans to begin a new public comment period that will include public meetings on the new plan.

Ryan Van Velzer is WFPL's Energy and Environment Reporter.