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Feedback Sought on Changes to Ohio River's Water Pollution 'Mixing Zones'

The interstate commission that regulates pollution in the Ohio River is considering a formal change to the way certain pollutants are measured in the river.

The Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission (ORSANCO) is holding a meeting this week to take public comment, and at least one environmental group is warning the change would cause higher levels of mercury in fish.

As of October 16 of this year, there’s a prohibition on ‘mixing zones’ in the river for certain types of pollution. A mixing zone is an area near a discharge point where the pollution is allowed to be diluted before it’s measured. ORSANCO commissioners put the deadline on the books in 2003; mixing zones were initially supposed to be eliminated by 2013, but the deadline was pushed back to this year.

Tim Joice of the Kentucky Waterways Alliance said the idea of mixing zones is illogical. The concept relies on an imaginary line downriver from the source of pollution where the water is sufficiently diluted and it meets water quality standards.

“But the reality is that until it gets to that point, it doesn’t meet that goal and it can still be ingested at higher levels until that point,” Joice said. “So we’re really just talking about an imaginary way of reducing pollution. It doesn’t really reduce the amount of pollution, and it still allows people to continue to discharge significant amounts of mercury.”

Now, ORSANCO is proposing that rather than a hard date of October 16, mixing zones should be eliminated “as soon as practicable.” This would mean existing facilities could still use these mixing zones until individual states determine they’re no longer appropriate. This would affect what ORSANCO calls “bioaccumulated chemicals of concern”: toxic chemicals like mercury, dieldrin, DDT and PCBs that bioaccumulate in fish.

“We no longer use mercury thermometers, a lot of dentists have phased out use of mercury fillings. We know that mercury is not good for us,” Joice said. “And yet, here we are, looking at whether we want to continue to allow mercury in the river.”

Kentucky Division of Water Director Peter Goodman said Kentucky already has a ban on mixing zones, so industries here wouldn’t be directly affected if ORSANCO commissioners end up changing the language. But Goodman said that some facilities along the Ohio River won’t be able to meet ORSANCO’s standards without a mixing zone by October, and even without a formal change, other states have the option of granting those facilities a variance.

The meeting is Tuesday, April 14 at 4:00pm at the Holiday Inn Cincinnati Airport in Erlanger, Kentucky. ORSANCO will also accept written comments on the proposal until May 14.


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