Wet Weather Proposal May Lower Ohio River Water Quality Standards

CINCINNATI, Ohio, April 18, 2006 (ENS) - The amount of bacteria in the Ohio River is likely to increase if the Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission, ORSANCO, adopts its proposed wet weather policy. The policy would allow more untreated raw sewage into the river during periods of high water, a coalition of environmental groups is warning.

The West Virginia Rivers Coalition, based in Elkins, West Virginia, says an ORSANCO proposal to lower water quality standards for the Ohio River will allow more bacteria from sewage into the river during periods of heavy rain, snowmelt, and high water.

Decades ago, many of the nation’s sewage systems were designed to combine sanitary sewers with storm sewers and overflow a mixture of raw sewage and stormwater during storm events. Today, these points of discharge, known as combined sewer overflows, CSOs, still exist in many older communities.

"There are nearly 50 CSO communities along the Ohio River," said Evan Hansen science advisor for West Virginia Rivers Coalition, which opposes the ORSANCO proposal. "This means hundreds of pipes overflowing raw sewage into the Ohio River."

Although discharging raw sewage into rivers without appropriate treatment is illegal in the United States, the Clean Water Act allows communities to operate aging systems under the condition that they eliminate overflows and upgrade outdated infrastructure over time under a Long Term Control Plan.

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View of Ohio River looking upstream toward Pike Island dam near Tiltonsville, Ohio about 12 miles north of Wheeling, West Virginia. (Photo courtesy NOAA)
During dry weather, sewage is directed to wastewater plants for treatment before it is released into local waterways. But after storm events, the combined flow of stormwater and sewage is often too much for sewer systems or treatment plants to handle. For communities with combined sewer systems, the result is often raw sewage overflowing into nearby rivers and streams.

"ORSANCO’s wet weather proposal is tremendously short-sighted," said Hansen. "It exposes recreational users to increased health risks and it removes the incentive for communities to fix older sewer systems that have been dumping raw sewage into the river for years."

ORSANCO acknowleges on its website that CSOs are a significant source of sewage related bacteria for the Ohio River.

The Ohio River begins at the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers at the Point in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and flows 981 miles to join the Mississippi River at Cairo, Illinois.

Based in Cinncinati, Ohio, ORSANCO is an interstate Compact established Commission, created in 1948 to abate water pollution in the Ohio River Basin. Signatories to the compact are Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia.

During the 2002-03 review of the ORSANCO Standards, comments were received recommending that the Commission include a provision to address wet weather conditions. The Commission agreed that this was an important issue and established a work group of state agency and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency personnel to develop recommendations.

The work group adopted the following guiding principles:

The ORSANCO proposal incorporates these principles into its wet weather proposal, and has scheduled a series of public hearings over the next month to receive public input on the proposal.

But Hansen and the West Virginia Rivers Coalition say the proposal "means increased health risk for fisherman, boaters, swimmers, children wading in nearby tributaries and many other recreational users of the Ohio River."

Raw sewage typically contains bacteria, viruses, and other pathogens that cause a variety of illnesses from mild gastroenteritis to life threatening conditions such as cholera, dysentery and hepatitis.

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Fisherman displays a striped bass caught in the Ohio River. (Photo courtesy FishFinder.com)
One recommendation under the guidelines is to, "Revise the language in the Pollution Control Standards to allow 10 percent of stream samples to exceed the E. coli maximum criterion of 240 CFU/100 mL," ORSANCO says in one section of the proposed document. The number of bacteria present in a water sample are normally given as number of colony forming units (CFU) per milliliter (mL) of water.

But at another place in its proposal, ORSANCO classifies the Ohio River as a "Light Use" waterbody, meaning that it is used for bathing less frequently than other waterbodies in the region.

Based on EPA’s recommended criteria for “Light Use,” that would change the E. coli single sample maximum from 240/100 mL to 409/100 mL. The latter value is rounded to 400/100mL in the proposed revisions, and an equivalent fecal coliform criterion of 500/100mL is also proposed," states ORSANCO.

The new values would double the amount of bacteria that would be allowed in the water if the proposal is adopted in its current form.

In West Virginia, there are 10 CSO communities located along the Ohio River, including larger cities such as Huntington and Wheeling, as well as smaller communities such as New Martinsville, Point Pleasant and Wellsburg.

"Many of these communities have spent tremendous amounts of money in recent years working toward eliminating CSO related problems," Hansen said. "ORSANCO’s proposals undermine this progress and delay the public health, economic and environmental benefits that are gained by eliminating these problems."

ORSANCO supports the practice of blending stormwater and wastewater and has allowed blending since 1997, as ORSANCO Executive Director and Chief Engineer Alan H. Vicory, Jr. testified April 13, 2005 before the House Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment.

"In the case of the Ohio River, without our blending policy, more untreated overflows would occur and the water quality impacts of wet weather would be more damaging," he said. "It would be extremely difficult – if not impossible – to effectively manage the wide variety of peak wet weather events in communities along the Ohio River if blending were not an available option."

ORSANCO does not view blending as merely an expedient substitute for proper management of wastewater infrastructure or of wet weather flows. Rather, blending is one tool in the 'tool box,'" Vicory told the lawmakers.

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The majority of the combined sewer systems in Kentucky are located along the Ohio River because most of these river towns are older. (Photo courtesy Kentucky Division of Water)
"Blending, when practiced with thought, planning, and a careful consideration of human health and environmental implications in a particular case, can be a protective, yet highly effective and efficient, wastewater management tool," said Vicory.

The Bush administration proposal to allow blending of stormwater and sewage that was the subject of Vicory's testimony was shelved in May 2005 after a public outcry against it.

In addition to the blending of stormwater and wastewater, which it opposes, the West Virginia Rivers Coalition points out that many sections of the Ohio River do not meet water quality standards for lead, mercury, PCBs, heavy metals and other pollutants. These violations have resulted in fish consumption advisories for the entire 981 mile length of the river.

Under the current review of its pollution control standards, ORSANCO is also seeking public comments about weakening rules that regulate the discharge of toxins known as bioaccumulative chemicals of concern (BCCs).

These chemicals do not degrade over time, but concentrate up the food chain in the tissue of aquatic organisms, invertebrates, fish and humans.

EPA has regulations for more than 20 bioaccumulative chemicals of concern, including dioxin, PCBs and mercury.

"If approved," Hansen said, "a change to regulations for BCCs will allow one West Virginia facility to release nearly 25 times more mercury into the Ohio River."

ORSANCO has scheduled public hearings about the proposed revisions to its Pollution Control Standards at the following locations from 4 pm to 7 pm local time:

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates 850 billion gallons of raw sewage and stormwater from CSOs are discharged into the nation’s waterways each year.

Online resources:
Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission: www.orsanco.org

West Virginia Rivers Coalition: www.wvrivers.org

ENS report: EPA Abandons Sewage Blending Plan http://www.ens-newswire.com/ens/may2005/2005-05-19-10.asp

Final Rule To Amend the Final Water Quality Guidance for the Great Lakes System to Prohibit Mixing Zones for Bioaccumulative Chemicals of Concern, click here

2004 Report to Congress: Impacts and Control of CSOs and SSOs, click here