Commentary: Protect, restore and enjoy the Ohio River

By Jason Flickner

Jason Flickner, director and Waterkeeper,
Lower Ohio River Waterkeeper | Courtesy Jason Flickner

The Ohio River is the Louisville region’s portico to the world. It’s also one of the most polluted rivers in the nation.

Why should you care? Because the water in your home, along with five million other people’s homes, comes from the Ohio River.

Hundreds of millions of your tax dollars have been spent to renew the Ohio River Greenway, Falls of the Ohio State Park and Louisville Waterfront Park, then link them with the Big 4 pedestrian bridge.

The money has been spent on sewage and stormwater treatment upgrades to make your investment enjoyable and protect downstream communities. Millions of people are drawn to the river for recreation and entertainment.

Waterfront restoration and redevelopment projects in the Louisville region have induced over $1 billion in revenue and reinvestment, sustaining thousands of jobs, and revitalizing the downtowns where you eat, work and socialize.

The Ohio River is truly your river! The law decrees navigable rivers are held in trust for the people’s use, not polluters. It’s illegal for any pollution to be dumped in the Ohio River and its tributaries unless it is permitted through a state agency designated with authority under the Clean Water Act. Water quality in the Ohio River must be maintained or restored to guarantee our rights and ability to swim, boat and fish in the river.

A group of like-minded individuals has introduced the Lower Ohio River Waterkeeper to ensure the Ohio River will cease to be the most polluted river in the nation. Our mission is to connect people and communities to protect, restore and enjoy the river and its watersheds. We are the only organization based in the Louisville region and extending throughout the Ohio River’s watersheds between the Kentucky and Wabash rivers focused exclusively on the health of the Ohio River.

Last week, 70 years of rules that have successfully improved the health of the Ohio River were nearly lost. The Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission, known as ORSANCO, cited redundancy with state and EPA regulations as cause to dismantle the Pollution Control Standards for the Ohio River.

An internal analysis of ORSANCO’s standards revealed state regulations lacked 440 weak and missing numeric pollution criteria. But peer reviews of ORSANCO’s report identified significant inaccuracies in the conclusions provided to the Pollution Control Standards committee. The uncertainty meant any decision by ORSANCO to eliminate the Ohio River’s standards would be implemented without an accurate technical and regulatory determination of the potential impact on pollution discharge permits and water quality.

The Lower Ohio River Waterkeeper, along with the astute leadership and expertise of dozens of allies, challenged ORSANCO’s proposal to eliminate the Ohio River’s pollution standards through public input, media and the Watershed Organizations Advisory Committee.

Over 6,000 public comments were submitted requesting ORSANCO maintain the Ohio River’s pollution standards including influential opposition conveyed by Evansville Mayor Lloyd Winnecke, Huntington Mayor Steve Williams and the Louisville Waterfront Development Corporation.

Fortunately, the steady march to eliminate the Ohio River’s pollution standards has been paused. During ORSANCO’s October Commissioner meeting, the Pollution Control Standards committee did not provide a recommendation to the Commission from its 2018 standards review.

Instead, the committee requested more time to review comments, deliberate and work with stakeholders to produce an acceptable recommendation to the Commission. The public input process was respected and ORSANCO’s Pollution Control Standards for the Ohio River remain in effect pending a future resolution by the Commission.

The Lower Ohio River Waterkeeper commends ORSANCO for listening to the overwhelming public outcry to maintain the most protective provisions of the Pollution Control Standards for the Ohio River.

We look forward to further engagement with ORSANCO staff and commissioners to evaluate and enhance the administration and implementation of the group’s standards. We encourage community and business leaders to continue to speak out expressing concern with eliminating the standards and emphasizing the benefits of a healthy Ohio River for your livelihood.

We invite all businesses, governments, institutions, organizations, congregations and the public to join the Lower Ohio River Waterkeeper in working to elevate the dialogue exalting the Ohio River, work to restore its habitats, watersheds and tributaries, and reduce the pollution that causes the river to be ranked one of the most polluted rivers in the nation.

Now is the time to demand the Ohio River is equally protected as our homes and neighborhoods because it forms our communities and defines our quality of life.

Jason Flickner is a director and Waterkeeper for the Lower Ohio River Waterkeeper.