By Frank Lewis
A news release from the Environmental Law & Policy Center on Thursday, says an eight-state commission that oversees pollution standards for the Ohio River announced a decision to remove the Oct. 16 effective date for a ban that would forbid companies in all states along the river from dumping high levels of toxic mercury into the waterway. Instead, the commission changed the rule to shift the responsibility to state agencies for deciding whether to allow companies to discharge larger amounts of mercury into the river, which means there will likely be no unified standard.
Mercury is a known neurotoxin that causes brain and nerve damage to children and developing fetuses when they are exposed through consumption of contaminated fish.
In 2003, the Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission, known as ORSANCO, authorized a ban to take effect in 10 years that would prevent polluters located in all states along the Ohio River from releasing high levels of mercury directly into the water through the use of mercury dilution zones. The ban on the “mixing zones” was originally created to improve the safety of consumption of fish from the river and protect public health. After delaying the ban by two years, ORSANCO set a new effective date for Oct. 16, 2015.
Instead of enforcing a specific implementation date, ORSANCO at its public meeting Thursday in Buffalo, New York announced it changed the mixing zone prohibition to “As soon as practicable,” and left final decision-making to state permitting authorities. States will now have more leeway to decide whether to grant variances to individual coal plants, factories and other industries along the Ohio River that seek exceptions to comply with the ban.
Representatives from a coalition of 20 environmental groups working toward a cleaner and healthier Ohio River have said they are concerned that states along the Ohio River will not be tough enforcers of the ban.
“The Environmental Law & Policy Center and our partners are disappointed about this decision because it fails to recognize that polluters have already had 12 years to reduce their mercury discharges,” Madeline Fleisher, ELPC’s Staff Attorney in Columbus, Ohio, said. “ORSANCO hasn’t done its job well on mercury pollution so Ohio, Illinois, Indiana and Pennsylvania need to step up and do it better. The Commission missed a crucial opportunity here to set a firm deadline for achieving safe levels of mercury in the Ohio River.”
Environmental groups say they are worried about continued health risks for residents who benefit from the fish supply in the Ohio River and those who recreate there as well.
“ORSANCO’s decision flies in the face of Kentuckians who support the ban on toxic mercury discharges and the enforcement of water quality protections, and it flies in the face of science,” Tim Joice, Water Policy Director at the Kentucky Waterways Alliance, said. “We are extremely disappointed for all the fishermen and families that eat fish from the river daily, and disappointed for the public at large. KWA will continue to fight for clean water for the health of our communities and citizens.”
The coalition also charges that ORSANCO is abandoning its own mission to set one standard for the entire river, which is intended to reduce overall pollution and create a level playing field for industries along the length of the river.
“This decision to eliminate the ban deadline provides no end in sight to the increasing mercury pollution in the Ohio River,” Angie Rosser, Executive Director of the West Virginia Rivers Coalition, said. “Cleaner water for our residents simply can’t wait.”
Several companies along the Ohio River were in the process of requesting variances to the mixing zone ban from ORSANCO and they will instead have to seek exceptions directly from states agencies.
ORSANCO, which is composed of governor-appointed individuals from eight states and three federal government representatives, is charged to conduct a review of its pollution abatement and control standards every three years. More than 16,000 public comments were submitted opposing the lifting of the mercury mixing zone ban deadline.
Reach Frank Lewis at 740-353-3101, ext. 1928, or on Twitter @franklewis.