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Ohio River Regulators Adopt Voluntary Pollution Control Standards

The multi-state commission overseeing water quality along the Ohio River has adopted voluntary pollution control standards nearly a year after member states considered a plan to abandon the standards entirely.

The plan will keep pollution control standards in place, but gives states more flexibility to implement their own water quality programs while ensuring standards are equally protective.

The Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission approved the compromise plan in a 19-2 vote with one commissioner abstaining during the meeting held Thursday in Covington, Kentucky.

The approved plan will have little impact on the majority of member states with pollution standards equal to those established by ORSANCO — including Kentucky, West Virginia, Indiana and Pennsylvania.

Meanwhile, the two states that have not adopted the pollution control standards — Ohio and Illinois — will have pollution discharge permits reviewed by ORSANCO to ensure standards offer comparable protection.

“So what this does is say the standards will continue in effect and for those who are not utilizing them in their permits, you will now be held accountable to demonstrate your permits are equally protective,” said Tom FitzGerald, ORSANCO commissioner and environmental attorney.

FitzGerald said that in an ideal world, all eight states would have agreed to use the pollution control standards, but the current plan at least establishes a new level of accountability for those that don’t follow the standards.

Illinois Commissioner Toby Frevert said he doesn’t think the pollution control standards were ever relevant in his state. The new plan recognizes Illinois as a cooperating partner, while allowing standards developed and adopted by the state’s legislative process, he said.

“My reading of the compact is that my state committed to cooperate to the greater good of protecting the Ohio River,” he said.

Still, some environmental advocates left the meeting feeling the vote erodes water quality protections along the Ohio River. A spokesman for the National Wildlife Federation said the decision abandons river-wide standards and undermines the health of people and wildlife that depend on the river.

“The practical outcome is the states can now opt out of strong regional water protections,” said Jordan Lubetkin with the National Wildlife Federation. “And we think that having uniform strong standards that everyone has to abide by is the best way to manage the river.”

The eight-state body established the interstate compact before the passage of the Clean Water Act to protect water quality along the nearly 1,000-mile-long river.

For more than 70 years, standards for who can dump what and how much into the Ohio River have been regulated by ORSANCO, but that almost changed last year when commissioners planned a vote to strip the pollution control standards.

The plan adopted Thursday is the result of a compromise written after the commission received widespread public condemnation for its initial plan to abandon the standards entirely.

Ryan Van Velzer is the Kentucky Public Radio Managing Editor. Email Ryan at rvanvelzer@lpm.org.

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