Water Quality Protection

Regulatory Oversight Showing Weaknesses

The Ohio River is now the worst toxic water dump in the U.S.  In response, in 2009, ORF launched the Protect Our Water campaign.

Improvements in water quality were achieved in the Ohio River watershed due primarily to passage and enforcement of the Clean Water Act (CWA) in 1972.  However, threats continue from stormwater runoff, agricultural runoff, mercury deposition from coal-fired plants, and millions of gallons of untreated sewage that flow into the river each year from sewer overflows.  Furthermore, Over the last two years, evidence indicates that government pollution prevention and enforcement programs are not working well. Reports by USEPA, Environment America Research & Policy Center, and The New York Times indicate that:

  1. In 2007, polluters dumped 31 million pounds of toxic chemicals into the Ohio River making it the most toxic river in the country
  2. Violations of the Clean Water Act are going unprosecuted
  3. 49% of lakes and reservoirs are contaminated above EPA safe levels

Amazingly, in some cases this is permitted pollution; however, the number of permit violations appears to be growing. Unfortunately, the political will to enforce water pollution laws has waned and is now further stressed by economic recession and shrinking government budgets. So, under the auspices of the Protect Our Water campaign ORF is now conducting an independent investigation to identify polluters threatening our waterways and drinking water supplies, and force compliance with the law.   DONATE NOW. SUPPORT THIS CRUCIAL PUBLIC HEALTH CAMPAIGN.

Clean Water Act Regulations

(August 2010) Coal Ash Rule - USEPA has unveiled a 563-page draft plan in which it is considering regulating coal ash as a hazardous waste due to new testing methods that reveal leaching of contaminants (like arsenic) into the environment.  A second option included in the EPA plan would deem coal ash non-hazardous and subject it to less stringent national standards.  Many industry backers prefer the latter option on economic concerns.  This fact sheet rebuts those industry concerns.

Public hearings took place in fall 2010 regarding the plan beginning August 30 in Arlington, Va. The agency scheduled some hearings in the heart of coal country, where coal ash has long been a problem: Pittsburgh, Pa. - Sept. 21, and in Louisville, Ky. - Sept. 28. Other day-long hearings took place in states where the future of coal and coal-fired power plants are being debated: Denver, Co. - Sept. 2, and Chicago, Ill. - Sept. 8.

The EPA plans to review all public comments submitted on its proposal, at the hearings and in writing, before moving on to finalize a regulatory plan.


(July 2010) Sewer Overflows & Basement Backups - USEPA is taking public comment regarding its consideration of modifying regulations to better protect the public and environment from sanitary sewer overflows and basement backups.  No regulations are proposed at this time.  EPA will review comments and then decide what, if any, regulations to propose.  Once proposed, there will be another public comment period.

Public Comment Deadline -- August 2

Here are some talking points courtesy of our national partner, Clean Water Network.

Water Quality Standards

The Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission (ORSANCO) - a quasi-regulatory agency created to control pollution of the Ohio River - sets baseline water quality standards for the Ohio River.  Ohio River states may then elect to adopt those standards or more strict ones.  All must comply with Clean Water Act regulations and are subject to USEPA approval

(October 2010) ORSANCO commissioners voted to adopt a variance rule that will allow states to permit more toxic pollution of the Ohio River.  It will be up to the watershed states (Ohio, Kentucky, Illinois, Indiana, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania) to decide whether they will adopt the ORSANCO rule.  The rule allows polluters to obtain variances (a/k/a waivers) from having to comply with requirements for biological chemicals of concern (i.e., mercury and other toxins).  Thus, polluters could be given a pass and there will no longer be an incentive to seek alternative products or processes.  The Clean Water Act requires use of Best Available Technology. 


ORSANCO approved a provision that will continue to allow elevated levels of mercury to be discharged into the river until 2013 and even possibly increase the amount entering the river.


The Commission Standards currently include water quality criteria and effluent limits for fecal coliform and e. coli bacteria. There is considerable work being done to identify better bacterial indicators. The current criteria development plan for US EPA calls for new criteria to protect recreational use in 2012. There is also a need for better pathogen criteria to protect drinking water use.

Applicability of New US EPA Human Health Criteria

US EPA has adopted several new human health criteria in recent years. Derivation of those criteria involves certain assumptions about the rate of fish consumption and the exposure to a given pollutant from sources other than drinking water and eating fish. The Commission is seeking information as to whether or not the assumptions used in the derivation of the national criteria are valid for the Ohio River.


ORSANCO convened a work group including representatives of state and federal environmental and fisheries agencies, universities, and the power industry to review its current temperature criteria as well as studies of thermal impacts that have been completed since those criteria were adopted. The work group recommended a methodology for deriving new temperature criteria. The methodology and resulting criteria are under review by state agency staff.

Translators for Metals

ORSANCO has conducted monitoring for dissolved and total recoverable metals at 17 Ohio River sites for over ten years. The data have been used to develop translators for relating dissolved and total recoverable metals concentrations. The translators would allow permit limits, which must be based on total recoverable concentrations, to be developed to meet in stream criteria, which limit the dissolved portion.


USEPA criteria adoption pending.

Wet Weather Standards

ORSANCO has reported that in a given year there are 180 days where wastewater standards are violated.  If adopted these proposals will make it legal to allow sewage into the Ohio River. This will be bad for public health, the economy, and the river.  Sewer overflows are a nagging but persistent problem nationwide.  More

In 2006, the Commission proposed revisions to Section IV- Water Quality Criteria and Section V – Waste Water Discharge Requirements to provide for wet weather conditions. Comments on the proposed revisions were overwhelmingly negative. The proposed revisions to Section IV were not adopted but the proposed revisions to Section V were adopted. The Commission has undertaken a study of recreational use of the Ohio River to determine if the assumptions used in the proposed revisions to Section IV were valid. This study is expected to be completed by spring 2010.

(August 2006)

The formal written comment period and public hearings concluded with more than 200 people attending the five public hearings, ten thousand postcards were delivered from concerned citizens, and comments sent by more than 50 concerned companies and organizations...all in opposition to the proposals.


Proposal Documents: Proposal summary  Draft standards-text  Additional issues for comment   Q & A

For more information or to find out how you can help, please contact us!