Ohio River cleaner, but progress slows
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) - As the country celebrates the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, experts and river users say fish and boaters have returned to the cleaner, fresher-smelling Ohio River.
“I believe the biggest myth is that it’s dirty, it’s nasty, that it’s got feces in it that you wouldn’t even dream of going in the river,” said Louisvillian George McCarver, who spends time jumping waves on the river from a personal watercraft. “It’s not got big turds in it. There are no floating syringes. Sometimes it gets blue.”
The Courier-Journal of Louisville reported Wednesday that environmentalists credit most the progress in the water quality to the two decades immediatly following the Clean Water Act of 1972. The act was prompted into passage after that first Earth Day, when Congress saw how passionate Americans were about saving the environment.
Cities along the banks and within the Ohio River basin began removing contaminant from the sewage before releasing it into the water and industries stopped indiscriminantly dumping toxic chemicals in to the mix as well.
Health authorities still caution that anyone who swims in the river should bathe afterward and people should limit the amount of fish they eat from the Ohio.
Bowling Green attorney and former EPA official LaJuana S. Wilcher said that further improvement will depend on cleaning up the Ohio’s 50,000 miles of tributaries.
“When we look at the last 20 years, we have not seen significant changes in water quality improvements in this country,” said Wilcher, who ran the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s water programs during the administration of President George H.W. Bush, and more recently was former Kentucky Gov. Ernie Fletcher’s top environmental regulator.
As hundreds of millions of people around the world observe Earth Day’s anniversary on Thursday and related events this month, many local residents may recall the pervasive pollution of the 1960s that fueled a growing environmental movement including a push to clean up the Ohio and its tributaries.
One report in The Courier-Journal in 1967 described “black creosote that oozes from a wood processing plant to coat the sides of a ditch; foul looking rubbery suds that drive swimmers and boaters out of the Ohio River in disgust; black, stinking sewage, improperly treated, that roils the water of the river into a soupy brew; avalanches of garbage that line the steep banks of Beargrass Creek and tumble down into the water.”
“The river back in the 60s was pretty much at its low point,” said John Romans, a retired Dow Corning engineer who lives in Carrolton and tracks conservation issues for the Kentucky Bass Federation, an alliance of local fishing groups. “The condition of the fish was pretty poor. They smelled and tasted like diesel.”
Cities and industries along the river have spent billions cleaning up and cities like Louisville, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh still are spending billions more to fix antiquated sewer systems that overflow when it rains.
As a result, Romans said, the river is “back into more tolerable ranges” of water quality.
“Will it support recreational fishing? Yes. It does a wonderful job,” he said.
Forty years ago, about all that lived in the Ohio were tough, pollution-tolerant carp and catfish, said Peter Tennant, deputy director of the Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation commission, which sets water quality standards for the river. But surveys dating to the 1950s show steady improvement in the number and variety of fish, as well as their overall health, said Erich Emery, biological programs manager for the commission. Fish that have come back include paddlefish, smallmouth bass and logperch.
A recent survey estimated that more three million people each year are using the river for swimming, boating, fishing and hunting.
Health authorities also recommend limits on eating fish from the river because of pollutants such as mercury, which is associated with coal-fired power plant emissions and can damage nervous systems. Tennant said the Ohio River commission is still trying to determine the source of toxic polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, that are showing up in fish 25 years after the EPA phased them out.
“We are not where we would like to be, but we are several orders of magnitude better than we were back then,” Tennant said, recalling the Ohio River of 1970.