Environmental Protection

ORSANCO Proposes Changes, Alliance Fears Mercury Pollution in River

The Kentucky Waterways Alliance recently reported that proposed changes to current pollution control standards (pdf) for the Ohio River could equal greater amounts of mercury entering a river that already receives more toxic pollution than any other in the nation.

The Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission (ORSANCO), a multi-state compact that recommends standards for the river’s water quality, has initiated an Accelerated Review of Pollution Control Standards to address emerging issues for the river. One of the proposed changes, the group says, would give polluters the right to dump increasing amounts of mercury and other toxins into the river using methods that are being phased out in the Great Lakes and across the country due to health concerns. Specifically, polluters would be allowed to apply for a waiver of the October 2013 moratorium on mixing zones for Bio-accumulative Chemicals of Concern (BCCs). A mixing zone is an area where toxic pollution is allowed to be dumped in quantities greater than health standards and diluted to meet the legal limits for water quality. BCCs, like mercury, are toxins that build up in big fish as they eat many smaller fish.

The Alliance said it believes the variance revision could possibly allow variances to the 2013 moratorium on mixing zones for BCCs to be renewed indefinitely, allow new mixing zones for BCCs, and allow increases in the amount of BCCs discharged in existing mixing zones – all currently restricted in existing standards. To address this concern, the group launched a new campaign, “STOP Mercury Rising in the Ohio,” to convince Commissioners to protect public health by voting no to the proposed revisions.

ORSANCO Deputy Executive Director Peter Tennant said the action would allow the commission to consider, on a case-by-case basis, variances to the mixing zone requirements. Any such variance would be subject to the existing requirements that:

  • water quality standards be met outside the mixing zone,
  • the request be approved by the affected states, and
  • the variance be temporary – that is, it could only be granted for the life of the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit (no more than 5 years).

Additional conditions for variances also are being proposed, Tennant said, such as that the discharger demonstrate alternatives, including elimination of the discharge; that alternative effluent limits that can be met with current technology be determined; and that the commission provide opportunity for public comment on any such variance request.

The Kentucky Waterways Alliance claims the proposed change is being "pushed" by the coal power industry. The group explained that coal power plants have installed scrubbers in smoke stacks to remove sulfur dioxide and comply with the Clean Air Act. These scrubbers also remove other toxins, including mercury; and are washed off to maintain efficiency. The scrubber wash water is collected and stored in onsite impoundments and mixed with wastewater from the plant before being dumped in the Ohio River, the group said.

Tennant said that the proposed changes came about because the power companies presented evidence that current technology may not be capable of achieving the requirements of the current mixing zone requirement for discharges from flue gas desulfurization units at coal-fired plants. It is understood that research will continue to improve the technology for treatment of these discharges and that variances would be needed only on a temporary basis, he said.

ORSANCO’s recent data show levels of total mercury in some fish exceed the current criterion, which is based on methyl mercury. Tennant added that the commission is committed to additional monitoring over the next year to determine if, in fact, the methyl mercury in fish exceeds the established criterion.

The commission has scheduled four education workshops and a hearing from 4 to 7 p.m. on:

  • July 20 at the Aztar Conference Center (Maple B Room), Evansville, Ind.
  • July 21at the Galt House (Jones Room), Louisville, Ky.
  • July 22 at the Marshall University Corbly Hall Room 104, Huntington, W.V.
  • July 27 at the Holiday Inn Meadow Lands, Washington, Pa.
  • August 3 (hearing) at the Holiday Inn Airport (Hamilton Room), 1717 Airport Exchange Blvd., Erlanger, Ky.

ORSANCO is accepting comments until Sept. 3 and will vote on the revisions of the new standards at the October 14 Commissioners meeting in Madison, Ind.

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