Press Release

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Chemicals Pose Health Risks for Ohio River Basin Communities

Kristy Meyer, September 5, 2013

Conservation groups in the Ohio River Basin joined together today to oppose the Ohio River Valley Sanitation Commission’s proposal to allow two more years of dangerous chemical discharges to the Ohio River.

Since 2003, the Ohio River Valley Sanitation Commission (ORSANCO) had required that all permitted facilities eliminate their “mixing zones” for bioaccumulative chemicals of concern (BCCs), including dangerous chemicals such as mercury, by October 2013.

ORSANCO is now proposing to extend that deadline to October of 2015.  This proposal is of great concern to the eight states in the ORSANCO compact and to all of the communities located downstream.

ORSANCO is an interstate commission that was established to control and abate pollution in the Ohio River Basin. All member states pay a portion of ORSANCO’s operating costs, and in return, ORSANCO is responsible for ensuring that the river and its tributaries can be used for drinking water, industrial supplies, and recreational purposes, and can support a healthy and diverse aquatic ecosystem.  

For many years, it has been common practice for coal-fired power plants and other permitted facilities to create special “mixing zones” in the river where they are able to dilute their waste water in order to meet the legal limits for water quality.  

Research has shown that certain pollutants can remain in the water and pose significant concerns, even after being diluted to lower concentrations.  Of particular alarm are those substances – such as mercury, PCBs, dioxin and various other chemicals – known to accumulate or magnify as they travel up the food chain and subsequently pose serious health threats to humans.

It was this rationale that led ORSANCO and other states to initially propose mixing zone bans. Unfortunately, ORSANCO has not met its obligations.

Kentucky Waterways Alliance, Ohio River Foundation, Ohio Environmental Council, West Virginia Rivers Coalition, Cumberland and Hoosier Chapters of the Sierra Club, and American Rivers are extremely concerned with ORSANCO’s recent actions.  First, ORSANCO created a variance procedure in 2011 that allowed polluters to delay compliance with the mixing zone ban.

Then, in 2012, ORSANCO failed to accept its own staff’s mercury fish tissue sampling data for the Ohio River, which indicated that fish in some areas of the Ohio River already exceeded the “safe” limit for mercury.  Instead, the Commission chose to use a technique to assess the river that is not recommended by the U.S. EPA.  In October 2012, ORSANCO proceeded to grant a variance to the largest mercury discharger on the Ohio River, PPG Industries.  

After decades of polluting, any further delay to eliminate mixing zones for BCCs is inexcusable.  Further, any extension of the mixing zone deadline must have clearly articulated accountability measures.

To that end, in order to ensure that the health of both our rivers and our citizens are protected, ORSANCO must utilize EPA-recommended methods to complete a full assessment of mercury in fish tissue for the Ohio River.  If the river is already “impaired” for mercury, ORSANCO and the states must make plans to enforce the mixing zone ban as soon as possible.

Regardless, ORSANCO must enforce the proposed October 2015 deadline as final and, to meet that timeline, all dischargers must develop compliance timelines immediately.  

Further, the state agencies responsible for permitting these facilities must integrate the compliance timelines retroactively as permit requirements.  These are minimum measures that ORSANCO must take in order to regain the public’s trust, and ensure the health of our rivers and our citizens are sufficiently protected.

“Now, ten years after enacting the ban on mixing zones for these most dangerous chemicals, the Commission is considering extending the deadline for all dischargers because no one has determined who may need a variance and who can comply with the limit for chemicals like mercury. This is unacceptable and the public’s health should not be held hostage to industry’s failures,” stated Tim Joice, Water Policy Director for KWA.

“West Virginians share a heritage of fishing and recreating in the Ohio.  The Commission should be standing up for our right to safely enjoy this aspect of our way of life,” said Angie Rosser, Executive Director of West Virginia Rivers Coalition. “ORSANCO’s actions are like telling a teenager every time he misses a curfew he can stay out later – eventually, he will be out all night because there is no curfew to take seriously.”

“Anyone who eats fish that contains mercury can be at risk of severe health problems, but mercury is particularly harmful to young children and the unborn babies of pregnant mothers who eat the fish,” said Bowden Quinn, Conservation Director for the Sierra Club’s Hoosier chapter. “ORSANCO must do much more to protect the people who enjoy fishing on the river and eating their catch.”

“The solution to pollution is not dilution,” said Kristy Meyer, Managing Director, Agricultural, Health & Clean Water Programs for the Ohio Environmental Council. “As of spring last year, mixing zones have been banned in the Great Lakes. Ohioans in the Lake Erie basin already have more protective water quality standards than those in the Ohio River watershed. Industry has had nearly a decade to comply with this ban. ORSANCO needs to stop playing Russian Roulette with millions of people’s health and not extend this deadline.”


  • Kristy Meyer, Ohio Environmental Council, (614) 638-8948,
  • Tim Joice, Kentucky Waterways Alliance, (502) 589-8008,
  • Betsy Bennett, Cumberland Chapter of the Sierra Club, (502) 897-0040,
  • Rich Cogen, Ohio Rivers Foundation, (513) 460-3365,
  • Liz Deardorff, American Rivers, (717) 763-0742,
  • Kim Knowles, Prairie Rivers Network, (217) 344-2371,
  • Bowden Quinn, Hoosier Chapter of the Sierra Club, (317) 695-3046,
  • Angie Rosser, West Virginia Rivers Coalition, (304) 637-7201,