Special to the Courier

CINCINNATI — A commission that watches over the Ohio River’s health has voted to make some of its pollution standards for the river voluntary.

The Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission approved the change Thursday. It allows states along the river to decide whether to opt out of the additional regional water quality standards already in place.

Several environmental groups say they’re worried that changes to the standards could weaken water quality protection for the river, which provides drinking water for 5 million people.

The National Wildlife Federation says the standards help make sure states don’t harm areas of the river that are downstream.

Supporters of the changes say they won’t affect water quality and point out that the federal Clean Water Act already sets standards for the river.

The Cincinnati-based Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission (ORSANCO), which is an interstate compact of eight states and the federal government, was put in place in 1948. It had considered eliminating its standards altogether as recently as last fall. Its action last week culminated five years of discussion and debate.

Valley Watch, based in Evansville, called ORSANCO’s decision “disgusting.”

“We (Evansville) are near the end of that 981-mile, fresh-water pipeline, meaning that what is placed in the river and its tributaries upstream finds its way to our faucets,” John Blair, a founder of the environmental group, wrote on after the vote. “Today, the government entity responsible for keeping that water quality good, ORSANCO, took a giant step backward and severely relaxed what they called Pollution Control Standards, allowing states that border the River to allow whatever level of pollution they think is appropriate for the profitability of their industrial and municipal polluters.”

ORSANCO “has, in the past, been instrumental in significant improvement of the water quality of the river throughout its length and this is the first time in its sixty-one year history that it has formally allowed more pollution to permeate the river,” wrote Blair, the editor of

The action, Blair said later in an email response to a query from The Madison Courier, is better than what had been up for a vote last fall but was delayed as the debate over ending standards altogether continued.

“It is significantly better in that they are not eliminating the overall standards like proposed last year,” Blair wrote in the email.

“However, they are essentially leaving it up to the states to determine their own standards in an era where polluters are running the show and deregulation is the current name of the game.”

“We strongly disagree with today’s vote. We think it’s really a punch in the gut to the 5 million people who depend on the Ohio River for their drinking water, for their jobs and their way of life,” Jordan Lubetkin, director of regional communications for the National Wildlife Federation, told the Evansville Courier & Press.

In a news release after the vote, ORSANCO listed in a press release what the action will mean.

The No. 2 item on the list was that it “provides needed flexibility for member States to utilize the PCS (pollution control standards) in their environmental programs as needed to protect the Ohio River and achieve the goals of ORSANCO’s Compact and the Clean Water Act.”

Blair wrote in the email: “Item #2 in the release is the operative paragraph and leaves open an ‘anything goes’ potential. In my view it was little more than a clever way to make the ORSANCO PCS kind of toothless and merely aspirational. That may be OK for those upstream but for those of us at the end of the pipe, it could spell disaster.”

ORSANCO has eight member states whose watersheds contribute water to the Ohio River: New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia, Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky and Illinois. The Ohio River, the largest source of water for the Mississippi River, begins in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, and empties into the Mississippi in Cairo, Illinois.

This story was supplemented with information from The Associated Press.