Sustained Outrage

Water quality, the Kanawha River and ORSANCO

FishShock3  ..  8x5.09  Tues.  ellis photo

Gazette photo by Chip Ellis

Today’s Gazette featured a front-page story that highlighted a visit to Charleston by the Ohio River Valley Sanitation Commission — known as ORSCANO — and the group’s portable aquarium, which was stocked with some fish capture during a shocking exercise on the Kanawha River. As the story explained:

A diverse assortment of fish from the vicinity of the confluence of the Elk and Kanawha rivers in downtown Charleston was captured by electro-fishing biologists Monday to fill a mobile aquarium now on display at Haddad Riverfront Park.

Personnel from the Department of Environmental Protection and the Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission (ORSANCO) stunned the fish with a carefully moderated electric current sent into the water from cables dangling from a pair of bow-mounted booms. The stunned fish were then netted, placed in an onboard tank, and transported to the aquarium.

The story also included some interesting comments from John Wirts, a biologist with the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection:

A lot of people have the assumption that the Kanawha River is polluted and doesn’t support many fish.  With the passage of the Clean Water Act and the end of untreated sewage being dumped in the river, that’s no longer the case. We want people in this area to know how much cleaner and full of life the river is, compared to how it used to be … Back then, oxygen levels were near zero during parts of the summer, and every summer fish died.

It’s certainly true that the passage of national environmental legislation like the Clean Water Act has cleaned up our country’s waterways, and local rivers and streams like the Kanawha and the Elk have benefited from reduced pollution loads. But the popular storyline from regulatory agencies often can overlook the remaining challenges for public health and the environment.

For example, if you review the latest statewide water quality report from the WVDEP (start, for example, on page 28 of the narrative) you’ll find that serious problems remain for the Kanawha River.  As Angie Rosser, executive director of the West Virginia Rivers Coalition, told me today:

Of course it’s encouraging to see the rebound of life, though the fish still are too toxic to eat. All of WV’s waters have fish consumption advisories; people are advised not to eat fish at all from the Lower Kanawha downstream of Dunbar.  The Lower Kanawha, including the section at the confluence of the Elk, is also listed as impaired by fecal coliform so sewage is still an issue and the safety of water contact recreation is also a concern. So, we still have a ways to go to restore our right to a swimmable, fishable river.

It’s also worth pointing out that ORSANCO, a multi-state commission that sets water quality standards for the Ohio River, is in Charleston for meetings that include at least one pretty significant agenda item:  A proposal to delay for two years the date after which pollution “mixing zones” are not allowed for bioaccumulative chemicals of concern, or BCCs. Generally speaking,  such zones allow pollution limits to be met some distance downstream from industrial outfalls, after pollution discharges has been diluted with river water. Also generally speaking, eliminating the mixing zones could force companies to have to cut back on their pollution discharges in the first place.

If this all sounds familiar, it’s because we’ve written here before about ORSANCO’s decision a year ago to grant PPG Industries a variance from the commission’s move to outlaw mixing zones — in PPG’s case for toxic mercury discharges.

Groups like the West Virginia Rivers Coalition and the Kentucky Waterways Alliance are opposed to the delay in eliminating these mixing zones. In one recent comment letter, for example, the Rivers Coalition explained:

ORSANCO, states and dischargers have had ten years to prepare for this deadline and few dischargers have taken action to reduce their discharge of mercury or determined if they need to take advantage of the variance procedure which ORSANCO adopted approximately one year ago. A deadline extension rewards dischargers for their procrastination and negligence, negates accountability and undermines ORSANCO’s authority in setting firm deadlines.