Is the Ohio River getting cleaner?

By G. Sam Piatt - PDT Columnist



Submitted Photo

Growing up in the little Kentucky village nestled on the bank of the Ohio River, in the mid-to late-1940s, the cooling waters of the big river was our chief mode of recreation during summer vacation.

We swam in the river three or four times a day. There were times when we came out of the willows onto the sandy shore to see a thin coat of oil floating on the surface.

We learned from one of the local men who worked as a deckhand on a towboat how most of the oil got there. He said crews were instructed to clean empty chemical barges on the way back up the river and pump the residue overboard at night.

Anyway, we didn’t let it stop us from swimming. We would swing our arms in windmill fashion and kick with our feet until the oil was pushed off shore to float on downstream.

The Ohio was more polluted in other ways, too, than it is today. Cities and towns didn’t have the waste water treatment plants that they have now, thanks to laws and regulations enforced by the Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission (ORSANCO) and the Environmental Protection Agency.

In those boyhood days, the river provided spending money and school clothes. We used the little johnboat we had rescued from the flood waters to set trotlines. We caught heavy stringers of catfish.

We cleaned the fish, leaving the heads intact, and rowed across the river and sold them to Mr. Herman’s Meats located on Market Street in the lower end of Portsmouth. He inspected the fish carefully. If the gills were blood red he knew the fish were fresh.

We provided fish for our families, too. My mother would fry those catfish up to a golden brown. We ate them two or three times a week. We ate so many catfish that today I’m totally burned out on them, no matter where they’re caught.

I don’t know of anyone who suffered health problems from eating these fish. It seems to me, though I have no statistics to back it, that the number of people suffering from cancer was only a fraction of what it is today.

There was that one time, though, that I caught a 5-pound sheepshead (drum) on pole and line and sold it for 50 cents to Mr. and Mrs. Alvie Gammons, who operated a little grocery squeezed between Route 10 and the railroad tracks at the head of the lower crossing.

They fixed it for supper and had invited my girlfriend in to eat. All three were sick at their stomachs for a couple of days. They blamed it on that fish. I don’t believe they ever ate Ohio River fish again.


ORSANCO, based in Cincinnati, monitors the water quality up and down the length of the 981-mile long river. It also periodically captures a variety of fish from it, fillets them, and tests the fillets for contaminants.

The agency issues advisories on which fish are safe enough from toxics to eat. Walleye, sauger, crappie, bass, bluegill – such as those are safe enough to eat, but should not be consumed more than once a week.

Catfish in the 1- to 3-pound category can be eaten occasionally. The should be filleted, which of course removes the skin and belly fat.

Hybrids, which are plentiful in the river these days, in my opinion are safe to eat as long as they are filleted and the red streak that runs through the fillet is removed.

There’s no doubt that Ohio River water is cleaner now than it was when I was a boy. The shorelines, too, are cleaner. The annual Ohio River Sweep sponsored by ORSANCO sees hundreds of volunteers turn out to pick up trash from the shores.

My friend, Soc Clay, wrote a column in The Greater Ashland Beacon last Tuesday in which he discussed the river’s water quality and whether the fish that swim in it are safe to eat.

He had a quote from our friend, Charley Sloas, that I can say a loud “amen” to.

Speaking of the advisories on consumption, Charley said, “Hell, these fish can’t be as contaminated as they were 10, 20, 30 years ago.”

He ate fish caught from the river through most of his life. He died at age 86.

Piatt Submitted Photo

By G. Sam Piatt

PDT Columnist

Reach G. SAM PIATT at [email protected] or (606) 932-3619.

Reach G. SAM PIATT at [email protected] or (606) 932-3619.