States in the Ohio River basin will be able to choose whether or not to follow pollution control standards set by the Ohio River Water Sanitation Commission. ORSANCO's board of directors approved the change at a meeting in Covington Thursday morning.
The change to the standards protocol comes after several years of review. According to ORSANCO's website, the revision maintains pollution control standards for the Ohio River "while providing needed flexibility for member states to utilize the Pollution Control Standards or their own rigorously developed" and EPA-approved water quality criteria for water discharge permits.
ORSANCO board members accepted public comment from March 1 to April 15, and received more than 3,700 responses, most against. Twelve people spoke before Thursday's meeting; eleven urged the board to keep standards mandatory. The twelfth advised any board member with a conflict of interest to abstain from voting.
Rich Cogen says it's the new voluntary nature of the standards that has people concerned.
He's executive director of Ohio River Foundation and chair of ORSANCO's Watershed Organization Advisory Committee. Cogen spoke against the decision after the vote.
He's worried about different standards for different states. "What that may result in is a downriver state receiving more pollution than it otherwise would like to receive and the impact on drinking water utilities and the costs that may be associated with increased treatment will then be felt by consumers," he says.
Jennifer Orr-Greene offered an amendment in her role as proxy for the secretary of Pennsylvania's EPA. The amendment requires ORSANCO to evaluate how the changes will impact the implementation of existing programs. "We wanted to ensure there was a commitment from the commission to follow through and to address some of the things the public has brought up," she says.
A statement from the National Wildlife Federation blasts the vote and calls it a "punch to the gut." Jordan Lubetkin says making pollution control standards voluntary is a step toward eliminating them. "The bottom line for us is this: With many cities and towns living with unsafe drinking water, now is not the time to scale back clean water enforcement and to walk away from our shared responsibility for the river. We need more, not less protection for clean water."
The board's next meeting is in October, in Richmond, Va.