Ohio River Commission to Allow Mercury Pollution Exceeding Health Standards for Two More Years

Ohio River Commission to Allow Mercury Pollution Exceeding Health Standards for Two More Years

The Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission (ORSANCO) has initiated an interim review of their Pollution Control Standards for the Ohio River focused solely on one issue; discharges of EPA designated bio-accumulative chemicals of concern (BCCs), primarily mercury, into mixing zones. A mixing zone is an area of a waterway where the discharge of pollution occurs and water quality standards for both human health and aquatic life are permitted to be exceeded. Specifically, methyl mercury and other BCC’s accumulate in the bodies of organisms upon ingestion, and inflict increasing levels of harm on higher orders of species such as predatory fish, birds, and mammals through a process known as “biomagnification”. ORSANCO’s proposed revisions to the Pollution Control Standards for the Ohio River would extend the date on a prohibition of mixing zones for BCCs from October 16, 2013 to October 16, 2015.

People and animals are exposed to mercury through air emissions and by eating fish and seafood containing mercury from polluted waters. Over time, this exposure causes mercury to build up in the body causing illness and poisoning. Mercury affects the human brain, spinal cord, kidneys, liver, immune system, and pituitary gland; and is associated with elevated risks for mental impairment including autism and Alzheimer’s disease. At greatest risk are pregnant women, women of childbearing age, and children who consume fish containing mercury. Exposure to mercury causes damage in unborn babies, infants, and children ‐ impairing cognitive thinking, memory, attention, language, motor and visual skill development.

Sampling conducted by ORSANCO has revealed over 800 miles of the Ohio River is currently exceeding health standards for mercury and a recent survey discovered over 13 million pounds of Ohio River fish are consumed every year by the public. This survey did not account for the commercial fishing industry on the Ohio River, which distributes mercury-laden fish across the nation. Each state bordering the Ohio River issues an annual fish consumption advisory due to the levels of mercury and other BCCs detected in fish tissue samples taken from the Ohio River.

Mercury pollution impacts the entire ecosystem, from algae to raptors. Studies of reproductive failures of many bird species have revealed high mercury contamination levels in eggs that failed to hatch. Multiple studies have shown that un-hatched eggs had higher contamination than hatched eggs; and in most cases the mercury contamination levels were linked to eggshell thinning.

ORSANCO is accepting comments from the public on the proposed revision to the Pollution Control Standards for the Ohio River until midnight Thursday September 12th, 2013. Official information on submitting comments can be found at Please tell ORSANCO to protect public health and the environment by enforcing the prohibition on mixing zones for BCCs established in the Pollution Control Standards for the Ohio River.

This article was written by Knob and Valley Audubon board member Jason Flickner. Jason has proposed a Falls of the Ohio Riverkeeper program under Waterkeeper Alliance with Knob and Valley Audubon as the sponsoring organization until it receives its own 501c3 non-profit status. At our annual meeting in June, Jason discussed the scope of the project covering the Ohio River pool above and below the McAlpine Dam, possible funding sources, and the organizational strategy for a Riverkeeper program.