by Steve Bittenbender
A multistate organization in charge of improving the quality of one of the country’s most important rivers voted on Thursday to adopt a new plan on how to ensure states meet water pollution standards.
By a 19-2 vote, with one abstention, the Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission (ORSANCO) passed a measure at its meeting in Covington, Ky., that now gives states more flexibility in regulating water standards. It capped a more than more than four-year review process for the panel on how those standards are established.
The states represented on the commission are Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia.
Richard Harrison, ORSANCO’s executive director and chief engineer, told The Center Square the review came about as the commission looked at the best way to utilize its resources. While the commission, which was established in 1948, had established mandatory requirements for the states, commissioners began to wonder if those regulations were duplicative of federal standards established in the Clean Water Act.
Last October, the commission proposed a measure that would have essentially done away with the standards. However, after significant pushback from the public, the commissioners tabled that “and went back to the drawing board,” Harrison said, to come up with another solution.
In Thursday’s vote, the commissioners agreed to maintain the water quality standards, but it gives regulatory bodies within each participating state the ability to determine how they will meet those standards.
Those standards are in place to ensure the water is safe enough for public consumption, business use and recreational opportunities on the 981-mile waterway.
However, not everyone agreed with ORANSCO’s decision. The National Wildlife Federation condemned the move, saying the organization shirked its responsibility to ensure clean drinking water for 5 million people who rely on the Ohio River as their source. It also failed to acknowledge the thousands of public comments that encouraged the commission to keep its standards intact.
“States voting to dissolve regional clean water protections are neglecting their responsibility to protect the health of the entire length of the river and the people who call the Ohio River Valley home,” said Gail Hesse, the water program director for the NWF’s Great Lakes Regional Center. “This is a monumental step in the wrong direction.”
Harrison disputed that claim, saying the public comments received over the years helped the commissioners create the plan approved on Thursday.
“The Commission would not have moved forward with a proposal that would weaken water quality,” Harrison said.
The measure takes effect immediately, Harrison said, although he noted that any changes the states would make to their water quality plans would require lengthy regulatory review and public comment periods. They would also need to show how those plans would meet or exceed ORSANCO’s standards.
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