The Ohio River starts at the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers and ends in Cairo, Illinois, where it flows into the Mississippi River. It crosses through or flows over six states and is the drinking water source for over 3 million people. More than 10 percent of the population in the United States lives in the Ohio River Basin.
As a kid growing up along the river, I quickly realized that the river was being abused. It was obvious by the physical condition of the water. We could see oil residues on the surface, the water had a foul odor most of the time and on many occasions dead fish littered the shoreline.
When I got older, my sister and I would walk along the river’s edge looking for arrowheads and other Native American artifacts. The Ohio River Valley had once been home to several tribes including the Shawnee, Miami, Seneca, Ottawa, Wyandot and Delaware. The name Ohio originated from the Iroquois word meaning “great river.”
During my childhood steel was king in the Ohio Valley. Steel companies occupied a vast amount of landscape up and down the river. There were mills in Steubenville, Weirton, Follansbee, Mingo Junction and Wheeling. There also were other industrial facilities such as Coke plants, chemical plants and oil storage facilities. In 1989 one of the largest hazardous waste incinerators in the world was built on the river in East Liverpool, Ohio.
During the 1960s and 1970s our nation’s environmental conscious was just starting to manifest itself. In 1970 22 million people gathered all over the United States to celebrate our first Earth Day. That same year the Environmental Protection Agency was created under President Richard Nixon.
For awhile these regulations seemed to help alleviate some of the more predominant pollution problems on the river. Recreational use of the river started to increase, and water boil orders were seldom issued. However, the mind-set that it was OK to use the Ohio River as a waste repository never really changed. Unfortunately, today the Ohio River has earned the auspicious title of being the most polluted river in the United States and has maintained that title for seven years in a row.
In 1948 a multistate agency was formed to control and abate pollution in the Ohio River Basin. This agency, called ORSANCO, the Ohio River Valley Water Sanitary Commission, has been monitoring chemical and physical parameters, conducting surveys and coordinating emergency-response activities for spills and accidental discharges on the Ohio River.
ORSANCO’s monitoring data shows there are many types of pollutants that originate from many sources. In 2015 an overabundance of phosphorus runoff from agricultural processes, municipal sewage and septic tanks in the watershed caused a 700-mile-long algae bloom on the river. This type of incident can occur on a lake but is usually not common in a flowing waterway.
In addition to high levels of phosphorus, the water can harbor methyl mercury, a known neurotoxin that accumulates in fish tissue. The river also tested positive for trace quantities of dioxin, polychlorinated biphenyls and other industrial chemicals. While not found in large quantities, these compounds can be quite toxic in small amounts.
Currently the water quality of the river is being threatened as a result of the boom of oil and gas drilling in the tri-state region. This industry has pretty much been given a green light by government agencies such as the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to use the river and the surrounding watershed as it sees fit.
There are no less than 19 newly proposed pipelines in the Appalachian Region, and the industry will do what is necessary to get the fracked oil and gas out of the area to export terminals. Several of these pipelines will go under the Ohio River, and given the extensive list of pipeline explosions and accidents in the United States, this scenario could result in massive contamination of the drinking water source for millions of people.
The process of horizontal hydraulic fracturing also creates enormous amounts of wastes. These wastes contain thousands of industrial chemicals, like benzene, and radioisotopes. Radium-226 is naturally found in Marcellus shale in concentrations up to 30 times background levels. During the process of fracking water is injected several miles down into the shale deposits to break up the shale. This water dissolves the soluble radium-226. When the water is withdrawn from the wells, it contains high amounts of radioisotopes.
In the spring of 2016 the U.S. Coast Guard approved the barging of hydraulic fracking wastes on the Ohio River using a case-by-case approval process. The Coast Guard also decided to withhold from public knowledge any information on the chemicals contained in the wastes. The wastes may end up in landfills, water treatment plants or in waste injection wells. Currently Ohio has no regulations in place to oversee these wastes, and there are no federal regulations regarding frack wastes.
As the watershed that feeds the Ohio River continues to be inundated with fracking wells, more contamination will enter the river and its tributaries. I believe we are quickly approaching a tipping point when we will have to decide if we want the Ohio River to be a source for drinking water, recreation and fishing or merely a disposal site and transportation source for the oil and gas industry.
Published: February 17, 2017