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Environmental Protection Agency calls Ohio River the most polluted in country

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Flowing nearly 1,000 miles across six states, the Ohio River was ranked the most polluted river in the United States for the seventh year in a row, according to a February Environmental Protection Agency report.

The Ohio Valley Water Sanitation Commission (ORSANCO) reported the river has 23 million pounds of toxic discharge.

Coming in at second and third most polluted rivers are the Mississippi River and the New River. 

Pollution of waterways is often accredited to the industrialization period during. Due to trade routes along bodies of water, small towns became urbanized along the Ohio River. 

One result of urbanization and industrialization is A.K. Steel, located in Rockport, Indiana, which accounts for over 70 percent of the Ohio River’s toxic chemicals, according to the a report by the Toxic Release Inventory (TRI). 

The report, however, can be deceptive, said Lisa Cochran, communication coordinator at ORSANCO.

“What happens is the U.S. EPA collects information from industries from land, water and air — these organizations are monitored and then regulated by the US EPA,” Cochran said. “The Ohio River gets the unfortunate title because the pollution is measured in pounds — it is misleading because the highest amount of pollution does not equal the greatest number of pounds.” 

Of the toxins discovered in the river, 92 percent were nitrate compounds. Mostly from an increase in steel factories, 380 pounds of mercury were also found. Much of the mercury comes from runoff or mixing pools, which the TRI report does not account for.

Many industrial plants are opting to dilute their waste by adding water to a certain parameter and then draining it into the river, said Matt Trokan, Sierra Club conservation director for the Ohio chapter.

According to Trokan, plants are dumping mercury that precedes the Cincinnati-Hamilton County Community Action Agency, but they have a variance that bypasses pollution standards so they’re an exception.

The pollution exception is meant for mixing pools. Power plants dump pollution into a pool of water nearby and mix it with a stream until it reaches a containment level before dumping it into the Ohio River. 

“So, these plants are dumping mercury that exceeds the Clean Water Act but they have a variance and they’re allowed to do it,” Trokan said.

Another considerable factor to the Ohio River is its sustainability and recreation options. During the warmer months, the river’s pollution keeps possible recreationalists and food seekers at bay, according to Madeline Fleisher, staff attorney at the Ohio Office Law and Policy Center.

“If anyone wants to make the river a viable resource, the mercury levels need to go down — you can’t really eat the fish if you catch them, and if you do, you can only eat a certain amount,” Fleisher said. “This is especially important for young children who are still developing and women who are pregnant.”

This past summer’s algae bloom is another result of pollution of the Ohio River. According to Trokan, one common factor between the river and the algae bloom is power plants.

“It’s kind of tied with these plants, because the algae is caused by nitrates and phosphates and some of these power plants are using nitrates and phosphates in their scrubbers to get rid of sulfuric acid,” Trokan said.

Efforts being made toward improving the algae bloom problem are not enough, according to Fleisher.

“This is a river where pollution is going to be a problem — one example of this is the algae bloom that happened over the summer and into the fall,” Fleisher said. “Some other issues are being dealt with, some aren’t.”

“Hopefully the algae situation from the summer will improve — we need to be doing more, though.”

The pollution of the Ohio River cannot be viewed as simply water under the bridge, and there are efforts being made to clean up the river, according to Richard Harrison, the executive director of ORSANCO.

“One of the things I want to stress is the inclusion that [ORSANCO] uses and the collaboration,” Harrison said. “Because it is a 981-mile river that has six main stems, we are all working together in a collaborative manner making sure that our water quality programs are appropriated and meet the needs of the folks who use the river.”

Even so, many people are still upset with the efforts ORSANCO is making in regards to pollution standards.

“You can’t ignore the environment forever, which is what regulators are doing,” Trokan said. “Eventually, it will catch up to them.”