(Grand Rapids, OH) On February 24, 2018, the FreshWater Accountabliity Project (FWAP) filed opposition to the proposal by the Ohio River Valley Water Sanitary Commission (ORSANCO) to roll back its responsibilities to protect the quality of the Ohio River’s water, a drinking water source for five million people. The majority of ORSANCO’s commissioners have advocated for a relaxation of the commission’s ability to develop and enforce Pollution Control Standards.

ORSANCO is a creature of statute, created in a 1948 Compact to coordinate efforts in different states and stakeholders. The Compact’s preamble states, “[T]he growth in industrial activity within [the Ohio River basin], [has] resulted in recent years in an increasingly serious pollution of the waters and streams within the said drainage basin, constituting a grave menace to the health, welfare and recreational facilities of the people living in such basin, and occasioning great economic loss.” This is even more true now with the increase in industrial activity along the Ohio River, especially the fracking industry which creates massive amounts of toxic and radioactive waste with many processors and disposal sites being located along the Ohio River with plans to barge this hazardous waste on the river. “ORSANCO has existed for 70 years on public funds and has a duty to fulfill its public trust to protect the river and our drinking water. Now, when ORSANCO’s duties are needed the most, it has proposed to abdicate on those duties and free itself from accountability for the urgent mandate it has to protect public health and the environment when it is needed the most,” stated Lea Harper, Managing Director of FWAP.

The 1948 compact was sanctioned by the federal government and gives ORSANCO the authority to issue and implement pollution control standards. ORSANCO’s standards are typically implemented through states’ NPDES permits. ORSANCO does have enforcement authority through the courts, but in practice has been able to get compliance for violations through simply issuing demands. The recommended change by the governing commission, called “Alternative 2” rolls back ORSANCO’s roles and responsibilities at a time when the Ohio River is especially at risk. ORSANCO’s ability to carry out its important mandate to protect the water quality of the Ohio River is heavily reliant on the makeup of the Commission to hold it to that Compact. Now the commission appears to be under undue industry influence.

ORSANCO has three commissioners from each state and three commissioners appointed by the President. Tom FitzGerald, an Obama appointee, holds one of the federal seats and is an outstanding environmental advocate from Kentucky. But his stance is in the minority on the commission which is basically recommending the elimination of Pollution Control Standards. This is especially egregious because as the head of the USEPA, Scott Pruitt, intends to roll back environmental protections as industry lobbyists are given greater power to pollute with impunity. This makes other regulatory agencies given the power to protect water quality even more important. With the influence of industry lobbyists, the proliferation of fracking and frack waste in the Ohio River Basin, and with the rollback of important environmental protections, it is important now more than ever to strengthen, not weaken, ORSANCO. A minority of Commissioners appear to be strongly crying out to make ORSANCO a meaningful institution. However, it appears the organization has been infiltrated by folks who agree with a deregulatory agenda and therefor are working to empty the organization of much of its power.

FWAP through its attorneys, Hunter & Hunter, LLC, has strongly advocated for the strengthening of ORSANCO and the fulfillment of its original charter to protect the Ohio River. FWAP is dismayed by the commission’s recommended “Alternative 2” preferred by the majority of the commissioners who are abdicating their responsibilities at a crucial time in ways that could threaten a vitally important drinking water source and cause extensive environmental degradation and increased consumer costs for clean drinking water. The Ohio River is the most contaminated river in the United States, and it is important now more than ever that ORSANCO carry out its mandates as responsibly as possible. Unfortunately, it appears that the commission Is leaning toward just the opposite. Although the public was not given adequate information or even notice and time to make comments, FWAP commented and commends the Minority Report of Commissioners as well as supports the comments submitted by the Water Users Advisory Committee, the Watershed Organizations Advisory Committee, the Public Information Advisory Committee, and the majority of the comments offered by the Technical Committee which advise against rolling back important pollution control activities by ORSANCO. FWAP disagrees strongly with industry organization comments that support the roll back.

As stated in the complaint submitted to ORSANCO, “It is reprehensible that, in a time marked by dogged environmental deregulation by the federal government, a majority of ORSANCO Commissioners would argue that federal environmental regulations are adequate to meet ORSANCO’s responsibilities. This is even more troublesome given the current political commitment to natural gas and petrochemical production expansion in the Ohio River basin at both the state and federal level.” There are inadequate regulations and controls in place to protect the Ohio River, especially against fracking and its waste processing and disposal operations, which are already highly unregulated. For ORSANCO to propose such a rollback on its responsibilities at this time demonstrates it lacks the will to carry out its important mandate. Lea Harper summarized, “The agency needs greater, not lesser, responsibility and accountability to protect the Ohio River and cannot be allowed to abdicate on its duties especially during this time of dire threats to the river and public health.”

A copy of the comment filed by Hunter & Hunter, LLC on behalf of FreshWater Accountability Project can be found at: https://fwap.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/02/ORSANCO-PCS-comment-for-FreshWater-Accountability-Project.pdf