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Industry dumped more toxic pollution into the Ohio River than any other U.S. watershed in 2020

The East End Bridge in eastern Jefferson County during an Ohio River sunset.
The East End Bridge in eastern Jefferson County during an Ohio River sunset.

Heavy industry dumped more toxic pollution into the Ohio River watershed than any other in the United States in 2020, according to the latest data available in a report from Environment America. 

Industrial discharges from coal-fired power plants, steel and aluminum manufacturers, petrochemical plants and other businesses accounted for nearly 41 million pounds of toxic pollution released into the Ohio River Basin. 

“Looking at the sheer volume of pollution, the Ohio River watershed is really right at the epicenter of this toxic polluting crisis,” said John Rumpler, clean water program director for the environmental non-profit dedicated to protecting the country’s natural resources. 

The report titled “Wasting our Waterways” analyzed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Toxics Release Inventory, which catalogs pollution released into waterways from industrial facilities. 

The EPA’s inventory covers hundreds of chemicals known to cause cancer as well as reproductive and developmental health effects. The 2020 inventory was also the first time facilities began tracking releases of “forever chemicals” used in waterproof coatings and non-stick pans.   

Industrial facilities released at least 193.6 million pounds of toxic pollution into U.S. waterways in 2020. The Ohio River watershed accounted for more than one-fifth of the total, followed by the South Atlantic-Gulf, and Mid-Atlantic watershed regions. 

The bulk of the toxic chemicals released into the country’s waterways were nitrates -- a form of nutrient pollution that can lower dissolved oxygen levels and cause toxic algal blooms. Back in 2019, these algal blooms appeared along 265 miles of the Ohio River. 

When it comes to human health, nitrates are also associated with development and birth defects, according to the report. 

A single facility in Rockport, Ind., was responsible for dumping nearly 11 million pounds of nitrates into the Lower Ohio-Little Pigeon watershed in Indiana and Kentucky, according to the report. As a result, that watershed had the most toxic pollution of any watershed in the entire country. 

Nitrates are also one of the main drivers of what’s known as the annual “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico. This is an area of low oxygen that can kill fish and marine life. In 2021, it spanned more than 6,000 miles, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

The Ohio River watershed

A watershed is a geographic area that drains to a common waterway. The Ohio River watershed is a region that covers more than 200,000 miles including a majority of Kentucky, Indiana, Ohio and West Virginia. 

Society has come to expect a lot from the Ohio River and its watershed. It’s important for commerce, recreation and power generation. It’s a dumping ground for toxic chemicals, urban and agricultural runoff. It's also a kind of collective toilet where many cities along its riverbanks, including Louisville, send treated (and untreated) wastewater.

At the same time, the Ohio River is the drinking water source for more than 5 million people.

“I’m not saying we don’t need power and we don’t need steel. We do,” Rumpler said. “The notion that the only way we can have power and steel is to have cancer-causing chemicals in our water supply… I believe in 21st century America we can do better.”

There’s a proverb in the environmental world that dilution is the solution to pollution, and the Ohio River is certainly a massive body of water. But not all of the detrimental impacts of pollution can be diluted by simply adding more water. Some chemicals, like mercury, accumulate in the environment and in wildlife. 

Take for example, the “forever chemicals” commonly used in waterproof coating and non-stick pans. Researchers with Kentucky’s Energy and Environment Cabinet recently found these chemicals in the tissue of every single fish they tested, sometimes at extremely high levels. Forever chemicals have been linked to cancer and other health impacts. 

They’ve already been found throughout the Ohio River, in every major Kentucky watershed, and at unsafe levels in at least 38 drinking water systems

The EPA first began requiring industrial facilities to test for forever chemicals in 2020, but only required reporting on 172 chemicals in a class of more than 12,000, according to the report. As a result, researchers with Environment America say industrial polluters are likely underreporting the true extent of forever chemical releases. 

“There are so many of these forever chemicals that are now out there in commerce, the agency just hasn’t caught up to how much is being produced and used,” Rumpler said. 

Kentucky’s largest sources of pollution

The steel producer North American Stainless in Carroll County dumped more toxic pollution by volume than any other industrial facility in Kentucky in 2020 at more than 3 million pounds, Rumpler said. The company did not immediately return a request for comment. 

Not all toxic chemicals are the same. Some are worse than others. Researchers also looked at facilities with releases that posed the most danger to human health based on toxicity. In Kentucky, Louisville Gas and Electric’s Mill Creek coal-fired power plant had the highest toxicity-weighted pounds of discharges in 2020, Rumpler said. 

The power plant released into the Ohio River a number of heavy metals present in coal ash including arsenic, nickel and chromium. 

“Wherever we’re going to get our power from, we should do it in a way that doesn’t dump arsenic and lead and selenium and other heavy metals and toxic substances where we want to go fishing and we want to draw our drinking water,” Rumpler said. 

LG&E spokesperson Liz Pratt said company leaders are unclear how Environment America came to its conclusions and don’t believe it is supported by the available evidence. She said that LG&E is in compliance with applicable laws and does not negatively impact the water for drinking or recreational activities.  

“Risk potentials identified by the referenced report will continue to decline in the future, specifically as the quantity of water used and discharged at the facility will be reduced by our announced unit retirements,” Pratt said.

Environment America’s report concludes with its own solution to pollution. It recommends the EPA move quickly to update pollution control standards and “dramatically reduce” toxic releases into the country’s waterways. It also calls on state officials to lower pollution limits, especially in instances where facilities are discharging into already polluted waterways. 

“The public has a right to know about what’s being dumped into our rivers, lakes and streams,” Rumpler said. “The basic conclusion here is that we need to stem this toxic tide of pollution in our waterways and to do it we are going to need stronger clean water protections.”

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

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