Climate Corner: River can’t be sewer, drinking water source

Jul 17, 2021

Randi Pokladnik


The Ohio River gets its name from the Iroquois Indian word Oyo, meaning great river. It is formed by the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers starting in Pittsburgh. The river is 981 miles long with the deepest point (132 feet depth) being close to Louisville, Ky. The river is home to 20 locks and dams, 49 power generating facilities, and carries over 230 million tons of cargo each year. It is also the drinking water source for over 5 million people.

I grew up close to the river in the 1960s in Toronto, Ohio. My siblings and I could climb up the hill behind our house and get a great view of the river. That view also included the Titanium Metals Corporation as well as Weirton Steel’s Brown’s Island coke ovens. We kids tried to imagine what the river might have looked like when only the First Nation tribes lived along its shores; a time when the water was clean enough to drink without worry.

Sadly, the river is notorious for being one of the most polluted in the nation, receiving pollution from both point and non-point sources. A non-point source is an amorphous source and includes things like run-off from agricultural sources or parking lots. While these sources do impact the river, they are often hard to monitor or control.

In the fall of 2019, an over-300-mile stretch of the river was affected by a harmful algal bloom (HAB) caused in part by non-point source pollution. According to the National Resource Defense Council, “an algal bloom is an overgrowth of microscopic algae or algae-like bacteria in fresh, salt or brackish waters.” Depending on the type of algae, blooms can be benign or toxic. Those, like the one on the Ohio in 2019, are caused by blue-green algae and can produce toxins like microcystin.

Officials blamed the bloom on drought conditions as well as high temperatures, but nutrient pollution plays a big factor in increasing harmful algal blooms. These nutrients (nitrogen and phosphates) are present in precipitation run-off from places like animal feedlots, farms and urban lawns.

Point sources of pollution, sources where one can point to a discharge pipe, are equally as dangerous. Public records reveal that over 6,900 toxic-containing discharges are poured into the river’s watershed. These discharges can be from industrial or municipal sources.

Discharges into the river fall under the Federal Clean Water Act. Some of the initial goals of this legislation were “to eliminate the discharge of pollutants into navigable waters by 1985”and “to prohibit the discharge of toxic pollutants.” This would be accomplished by having facilities obtain a National Pollution Discharge Elimination System permit (NPDES).

There are over 40,000 active NPDES permits in the Ohio River watershed. Although these permits must allow for public comments, according to Jim Hecker, environmental enforcement director for Public Justice, very few people can actually monitor and comment on permits and it is difficult to know what to even say in a permit comment. This is why only a handful of people or environmental groups comment in each state.

Even then, environmental departments in individual states along the Ohio River have the final say in granting and enforcing permits. A study from Fronter Group and Environment America Research and Policy Center examined NPDES permit data from 2011 to 2017 and found the following: there were 491 major facilities in Ohio and 407 facilities in West Virginia that had exceeded the requirements for their permits; facility inspections were down significantly; fines for violations were minimal at best; and state officials showed a “lack-luster” enforcement of permits.

Since its formation in 1948, the organization responsible for tracking water quality issues in the Ohio River is the Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission or ORSANCO. This eight-state federally funded organization is the only watchdog we have to monitor organic and inorganic pollutants in the Ohio River.

Recently, ORSANCO held their Technical Committee meeting online. These meetings are open to the public, and the data is also available on their webpage. Dr. Sherri Mason, a chemistry professor from Penn State, shared her concerns over plastics and microplastics contaminating freshwater sources like the Ohio River. We know from studies that single-use plastic wastes are wreaking havoc with our health and the environment. Yet, there are plans to build more single-use plastics making cracker plants along the Ohio River. The Shell Ethane Plastic Cracker Facility in Monaca, Pa., is scheduled to go online by Spring of 2022.

ORSANCO’s technical staff has no system in place to detect microplastics or the toxic plasticizers used in making plastics. There is currently no baseline data on how much microplastic materials, including fibers and pre-production pellets (nurdles) are in the Ohio River.

There are also plans to build underground storage (Appalachian Storage Hub) for natural gas liquids in salt deposits under the Ohio River. Powhattan Salt Company LLC wants to withdraw over 1,900,000 gallons of freshwater from the Ohio River on a daily basis to create just one of several planned storage caverns. They also plan to store millions of gallons of the resulting salt brine next to the river behind a dam, with the outflow of the dam flowing into the Ohio River.

A network of companies recently announced their intentions to move “millions of gallons of briny, toxic, wastewater from shale gas drilling and fracking operations” via barges down the Allegheny, Monongahela and Ohio rivers. These wastes can contain high levels of water-soluble Radium-226. ORSANCO does not have the capabilities to test for this isotope.

If the Ohio Valley region becomes the next petrochemical hub of the USA, the Ohio River and its watershed will indeed be severely impacted. The river cannot be both a sewer and a source of drinking water. Mark B. Hamilton, author of the recently published book, “OYO. The Beautiful River,” said of the Ohio River, “a river without water; food we cannot eat; water we cannot drink; a swim we cannot take.”


Randi Pokladnik, Ph.D., of Uhrichsville, is a retired research chemist who volunteers with Mid Ohio Valley Climate Action. She has a doctorate degree in Environmental Studies and is certified in Hazardous Materials Regulations.