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The Minds Behind Louisville’s Riverfront Revival

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The East End Bridge in north Louisville during an Ohio River sunset. Photo: Ryan Van Velzer/WFPL

In Louisville, Kentucky, the Ohio River has something of an image problem.

It seems like everything imaginable has ended up in the river at one time or another. There are the usual suspects like plastic bottles, Styrofoam coolers and tires. There are the byproducts of cities and industries: sewage, landfill juice and industrial waste. And then there are the things that seem almost uniquely Kentucky like coal ash and bourbon.

The Ohio River has been called “the most polluted river in America,” but that’s an incomplete portrait of a nearly thousand-mile-long river teeming with biodiversity, history and culture. 

At times, the industrial impacts have overshadowed the natural splendor that draws some to the river. But a few enthusiasts have taken it upon themselves to rehab the Ohio’s image, from dumping ground and coal barge causeway, to natural resource and recreation trail.

Along Louisville’s Waterfront Park, David Karem sees the river as the lifeblood of the community. On the river itself, David Wicks kayaks through an ecological corridor, devising a recreation trail where others see barge commerce. And standing beside a road crumbling into the Ohio’s muddy riverbanks, Scott Martin envisions a park that inspires people with the power of the river. 

“We tend to take the Ohio for granted. It is one of the globe’s most significant and largest rivers,” Martin said. “It’s in the category of the Rhine, the Rhone, the Danube, the Zambezi. This is a massive, massive river system.”

Through their projects, they hope to attract others to the river’s edge and, in doing so, motivate them to envision a better future for the Ohio River.

Louisville’s Front Lawn

More than 25 million people live in the Ohio River Basin and some five million of those get their drinking water from the river. But if you wanted to see the river for yourself in downtown Louisville in 1985, you’d likely have to commit some light trespassing.

David Karem is a self-proclaimed river rat. He’s also a former state senator and the first president of the Waterfront Development Corporation. When development began on Louisville’s downtown waterfront in 1986, Karem described it as a tangle of chain-link fences, junk yards, abandoned warehouses and asphalt terminals.

“Really an impenetrable wasteland as far as getting people back to the river as amenity,” Karem said.

Riding a wave of riverfront revitalization occurring across the country, the Waterfront Development Corporation transformed 86 acres into a riverfront park that now boasts 2.2 million visitors annually. Waterfront Park features a walking bridge, paths, grassy fields, playgrounds and a wharf.

Waterfront Park in Louisville, Kentucky, during the July Forecastle Music Festival. Photo: Ryan Van Velzer/WFPL

The park and its lawns serve dual roles. When the river is low, the park hosts more than 150 events a year including music festivals, air shows and riverboat races. When it’s high, the grassy lawns serve as floodplain, absorbing water and dissipating the river’s energy. In that way, Waterfront Park was ahead of its time as cities begin to reconsider the ecological and economic impacts of developing riverfronts prone to flooding. 

“The flood issues are enormous and so you have to build the park to deal with that,” Karem said. “The park was designed extremely carefully to deal with the flooding issues.”

But maintenance on the park isn’t cheap, and the park has lost a sizeable chunk of its funding over the last five years. Waterfront Development Corporation formed as a partnership, but the state eliminated its funding for the park in 2014, cutting the budget by about $420,000. Earlier this year, the city reduced its funding by 30%, cutting another $300,000 from the $2.4 million operating budget.

“We have to react very quickly to replace those funds that we’ve lost and that’s a significant amount of funding,” said Deborah Bilitski, current president of the Waterfront Development Corporation.

Still, Waterfront is working on a 22-acre expansion of the park between 10th and 15th streets along the river. Karem said he believes when people see the river, it deepens their appreciation for the resource. 

“The natural mental occurrence is we’ve got to protect it, we’ve got to love it, we have to keep it clean, we have to embrace it,” he said. 

River Heritage Conservancy

If Waterfront Park is Louisville’s front yard, then the nonprofit River Heritage Conservancy wants to be the forest just over its back fence. Right now, it’s 600 acres of shoreline, scrap yards, landfills, fill pits, quarries and river camps sitting idly across the river from Louisville in Indiana.

River Heritage Conservancy Executive Director Scott Martin looks upon the Falls of The Ohio on the Ohio River. Photo: Ryan Van Velzer/WFPL

“So even within these junk yards we have over 150 different species of birds that will move through here over the years,” said Scott Martin, the conservancy executive director. “We have otter. We have mink. We have flying squirrels.”

On a jagged river road near the Falls of the Ohio, Martin describes his vision for the wildest section of land in Kentuckiana’s urban core. He envisions a landscape park complete with lawns, hiking trails, forests, wetlands and elevated pathways designed to experience river flooding from a safe distance.

“So we want to be the park where people come experience the power of nature and really feel a little bit of awe and feel our smallness in the face of it,” Martin said.

The conservancy has already purchased about half the land needed for the park. To date, funding support has come from the Paul Ogle Foundation, the Blue Sky Foundation, the Town of Clarksville and other local and national organizations. 

Martin declined to comment on the amount of funding raised thus far, citing ongoing land acquisition deals. The conservancy is currently working on a master plan to present to the public in spring 2020, Martin said.

Floating on the Ohio River Recreation Trail

David Wicks would like to see Ohio River recreation go a step beyond the water’s edge. To that end, he is working with the National Park Service on developing a 274-mile water trail along the river from Portsmouth, Ohio, to West Point, Kentucky.

The Ohio River Recreational Trail would serve as a recreational route along the river with regular public access points for canoes, kayaks, sail and motorboats. 

“And one of the bottom-line ideas is to connect Louisville with all the river towns up and down the river,” he said.

Educator and environmentalist David Wicks paddling on the Ohio River near Prospect, Kentucky. Photo: Ryan Van Velzer/WFPL

On a recent kayak tour along a 14-mile stretch upriver from Louisville, Wicks paddled past forested hills, flocks of migrating birds, barges and small river towns. Halfway through the trip, he paused to walk through the abandoned Rose Island amusement park in Charlestown State Park.

Strolling under a series of archways set in the middle of a forest, he stopped to brush aside the leaves and read something inscribed in the concrete: Walkway of Roses. 

“This area we’re walking through right now used to be a city,” Wicks said. “Now it’s a floodplain.”

Wicks plans to develop resources in each of the 34 towns along the trail, including additional boat ramps and overnight camping sites every 20 miles or so.

In November, the National Park Service selected the project to receive planning assistance that will include expert consultation and spur the development of hiking, biking and water trails along the river, though it won’t include any funding.

Revitalizing the Riverfront

Wicks has a dream that one day he might dip a teacup in the Ohio River and drink cool, clean freshwater while paddling downriver. “And so I think the recreational trail is one step toward that. It develops the advocacy group to help our local politicians do what’s right.”

Further downriver in Louisville, Karem sits at a picnic bench outside Waterfront Development Corporation’s headquarters, which used to house a sand and gravel company. He agrees that providing access to the Ohio River is the most important factor in getting people invested in the resource.

An Ohio River sunset near Prospect, Kentucky. Photo: Ryan Van Velzer/WFPL

“People have an innate desire to get to the river’s edge. It is almost spiritual how much they want to be by it,” Karem said. 

Standing at the Falls of the Ohio, Martin explained his role in the changing nature of the river.

“In our lifespan, the Ohio is transitioning,” he said. “What was previously seen as almost entirely industrial-commercial river is a river that people see for recreational and conservation values.”

Ryan Van Velzer, environment reporter at WFPL News, authored this story. He can be reached at rvanvelzer@wfpl.org.

Good River: Stories of the Ohio is a series about the environment, economy and culture of the Ohio River watershed, produced by seven nonprofit newsrooms. To see more, please visit ohiowatershed.org.

Good River

We Mapped out the Toxic Wastewater Discharges along the Ohio River. Here’s What We Learned.

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All Tim Guilfoile wants to do is fish. Before his retirement, he had two careers: one in business and one in water quality activism. Now, he serves as the director of marketing and communications for Northern Kentucky Fly Fishers. “We fly fish for bass, blue gill, striped bass and others. Not just trout. I fish on the Ohio River.” 

Will he eat the fish he catches in the Ohio River? 

“Oh God, no!” he said.

Tim Guilfoile holds up a brown trout before releasing it along the Caney Fork in Kentucky. Photo: Courtesy of Susan Thrasher via Eye on Ohio

The Clean Water Act has regulated the levels of pollutants discharged into U.S. waterways since 1972, but sport anglers on the Ohio River still have to check the Ohio River Fish Consumption Advisories to see if their catch is safe to eat. Having worked as deputy director for the Sierra Club “Protecting America’s Waters” Campaign and the Sierra Club Water

Sentinels, Guilfoile knows the contamination risks of fishing on the Ohio. 

“But the scary part,” he said, “is that most people who fish are not aware of these advisories although there are notices with fish and wildlife agencies.”

The Clean Water Act’s original goal was to completely eliminate discharges into waterways by 1985, requiring that anyone who intentionally discharged wastewater into a U.S. waterway obtain a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System [NPDES] permit. Yet today, in the Ohio River watershed alone, there are still roughly 40,000 active NPDES permits.

Using public records, Eye on Ohio mapped out the roughly 6,900 toxic-containing wastewater discharges along the Ohio River, including how much they spew annually. 

Source: The United States Environmental Protection Agency’s Enforcement and Compliance History online database, echo.epa.gov. 2017 figures above 0 shown.

But public records only tell part of the story. 

Permitting Process 

The Environmental Protection Agency [EPA] works with authorized state regulatory agencies to implement the NPDES permitting program. Though the Clean Water Act governs the process, each state’s approach can differ. The EPA sets minimum standards nationally but it is up to each state to establish and manage its own regulations. 

The Ohio River Valley Sanitation Commission [ORSANO] is an interstate commission in the watershed that sets pollution control standards for states permitting industrial and municipal wastewater discharges into the Ohio River. 

Chuck Keller and Debra Hausrath, both from Fort Thomas, Kentucky, walk along the Licking River Greenway and Trails in Covington, Kentucky, on Dec. 19, 2019. Nearby manufacturer IPSCO Tubulars discharges wastewater containing lead and manganese into the river. Photo: Leigh Taylor/Eye on Ohio

There are two types of permits: general and individual. 

General permits are meant for discharges of wastewater that is considered to have minimal adverse effects on the environment. Individual permits, on the other hand, are for sites with more complex discharges that include toxics dangerous to the environment and humans. The permit process analyzes physical, biological and chemical data of the facility’s wastewater and determines what the receiving water can accommodate. 

Permits assess direct dumping or point-source pollution. The permits do not take into account pollutants such as agricultural runoff, which contributes to nutrient overload, known as “nonpoint” pollution.

Located in New Martinsville, West Virginia, Eagle Natrium, LLC, is the second-highest point polluter in the Ohio River watershed. In 2017, it spewed 196,165 toxic-weighted pounds into the Ohio River.

Mercury from the Eagle Natrium facility have made two species of local fish too poisonous to eat in significant quantities, according to the Ohio River Fish Consumption Advisories. 

In August 2019, the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition and the Sierra Club filed a lawsuit against the company. The complaint states that Eagle Natrium is the “only remaining chlor-alkali plant in the United States that uses mercury cells.” 

“Mercury cells” refers to the process that uses liquid mercury to produce chlorine, sodium hydroxide and potassium hydroxide. This is an old technology that came into use in the late 1800s. Other chlor-alkali plants use “membrane cells” for this process, which has been available since the 1960s.

Mercury found in moist environments can transform into methylmercury that bioaccumulates in the food chain. According to West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources, eating fish is the primary local exposure source for mercury.

In a 2016 Healthy Building Network newsletter, Eagle Natrium’s parent company at the time Axiall stated that it “has not announced any plans related to its mercury circuit processes” at the Natrium facility. WestLake Chemical acquired Axiall in 2016 and has not responded to several requests for comment. 

The EPA’s response was the following:

“The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection [WVDEP] is the lead agency for overseeing NPDES permitting and enforcement programs in West Virginia, and is actively involved in addressing compliance issues at Eagle Natrium LLC.”

On Oct. 15, 2019, just two months after the citizen’s suit was filed against Eagle Natrium, WVDEP amended their administrative order once again, giving Eagle Natrium until June 30, 2020, to comply.

The EPA also provided this statement on the facility: “Eagle Natrium (NPDES Permit No. WV0004359) continues to work to achieve compliance pursuant to an existing state formal enforcement action. The facility has invested an excess of $1 million in studies and improvements and has paid more than $1 million in penalties for exceeding NPDES permit limits. Further, the facility was granted interim permit limits. The interim limits were not updated in the national database, therefore, the compliance summary is not accurate. EPA and WVDEP are working to resolve these data discrepancies.”

Out of Compliance

The individual NPDES permit process requires a public notice along with the opportunity for public comment prior to its approval. Permit notices are found on each state’s environmental protection department website. But a lengthy process doesn’t always ensure better review. 

Jeremy Shannon, from Southgate, Kentucky, walks near the Licking River Greenway and Trails next to the Licking River in Covington, Kentucky. The trail is across the river from IPSCO Tubulars in Wilder, Kentucky. According to public records, the facility had four Clean Water Act violations in the last six quarters. Photo: Leigh Taylor/Eye on Ohio

“There are very few members of the public that can monitor and comment on permits,” said Jim Hecker, environmental enforcement director for Public Justice, a national nonprofit legal advocacy organization. “You have to be pretty sophisticated to even know what to say in your permit comments. There’s probably a handful of people who are doing that in each state, with a few environmental groups.”

Having a legal limit also doesn’t ensure that facilities follow those standards. 

A study from Frontier Group and Environment America Research and Policy Center examined NPDES permit data from 2011 to 2017 and found that an average of 27,849 facilities were noncompliant each year across the United States. Of those noncompliant facilities, the study found only an average of 13,076 faced EPA or state enforcement action on an annual basis. 

What determines whether or not action is taken against a noncompliant facility? 

According to the EPA, “enforcement actions are determined on a case-by-case basis. The EPA and its state partners work together to address NPDES permitting and compliance issues.”

Guilfoile is skeptical. “I don’t think we have a culture of corporate responsibility associated with public health, I just don’t, and it’s exhausting,” he said.

The same study examined data to determine how many facilities discharged more than their permit allowed between Jan. 1, 2016, and Sept. 30, 2017. West Virginia topped the list with 54% (26) of its facilities reporting exceedances greater than 100% of their permit limits at least once. Other states in the Ohio River watershed on the top-10 list of those with facilities that exceed their permit limits by greater than 100% at least once included Indiana at 32% (21 facilities), New York at 31% (37 facilities), and Illinois at 29% (19 facilities). 

Drainpipes along the Ohio River in Cincinnati, Ohio, near Smale Park. Photo: Leigh Taylor/ Eye on Ohio

Facilities with reported discharges greater than 500% of their permit limits also showed West Virginia at the top of the list with 31%(15 facilities). 

Eagle Natrium reported 56 exceedances from 2011 to 2017, according to the study. On 38 occasions, the company allegedly discharged more than 100% their permit limit. On 17 occasions, the discharge allegedly exceeded 500% percent of the limit. The discharged toxics included mercury, copper, chloroform, iron and chloride. 

Eagle Natrium’s predecessors, PPG Industries, also had issues with permit compliance and was under a consent order when the company changed ownership in 2014. Eagle Natrium is operating via a permit granted to PPG Industries. 

The permit was extended because ORSANCO’s pollution control standards required facilities operating prior to 2003 and discharging bioaccumulative chemicals of concern [BCC] to eliminate their “mixing zones” by 2015. Mixing zones are collection areas where facilities dilute their discharges to meet water quality standards before entering waterways.

Also in October 2015, ORSANCO updated its pollution control standards to remove the mixing zone deadline and replaced it to say “as soon as is practicable, as determined by the permitting authority.” Therefore, WVDEP extended the facility’s deadline while implementing interim discharge limits higher than the permit allows.

“One of the reasons the Ohio is ranked the dirtiest is because these bioaccumulative chemicals of concern are in the sediment and you’ll never get rid of them unless you dredged the length Ohio River bottom,” Guilfoile said. “Even if we stopped dumping everything today, that’s not going to change the BCC contamination in the Ohio River. Continuing to dump will make it worse, but it’s already pitiful.”

Prior to his work in water quality, Guilfoile was Cincinnati Children’s Hospital senior vice president of operations. In his time there, he loved the fact that he was able to impact the general well-being of children in many ways, but in other ways he knew he couldn’t.

The split of wins and losses when working to protect the environment weighs on him.

“I’m 70 years old now and I used to be a person with strong optimism and I’m not anymore. I’m just not. I’ve got a few years left to live and I’m going to fish as much as I possibly can and it’s too bad that this may very well be our last century on earth.”

Note: Data from this story was derived from the EPA’s Enforcement and Compliance History Online [ECHO] site.

The National Library of Medicine’s Toxmap application is no longer operating as of Dec. 16, 2019. When Eye on Ohio asked for an update, the National Library of Medicine [NLM] released the following statement: 

“The decision to retire the tool was made in 2019 as part of a broader NLM reorganization that integrated most of NLM’s toxicology information services into other NLM products and services. The sunset was announced in early summer 2019 to give users sufficient time to transition to other sources. NLM has taken great care to ensure that no data become unavailable as we reorganize our toxicology and other resources. Some data have been archived and made available via FTP. In the case of ToxMap, underlying data remains available through their original sources. The links to those sources are available on the ToxNet redirection site.”

For more information, see the NIH announcement or The Resource Page in its place.

Bonnie Jean Feldkamp is a Cincinnati-based freelance writer. Find her on social media @WriterBonnie or at WriterBonnie.com.

Good River: Stories of the Ohio is a series about the environment, economy, and culture of the Ohio River watershed, produced by seven nonprofit newsrooms. To see more, please visit ohiowatershed.org.

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Good River

Whose Job is it to Reduce Toxic Mercury in the Ohio River?

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Clifty Creek Station, a coal plant in Madison, Indiana, released 12 pounds of mercury into the Ohio River in 2017. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The brain-harming metal is discharged directly into the river and carried to it on air currents. Some argue authorities are doing too little to stop both routes of pollution.

Mercury, which damages young brains, is flowing through industrial wastewater into the Ohio River. But the multi-state agency tasked with keeping the waterway clean hasn’t tightened controls on this pollution because it doesn’t have the authority to do so. 

While coal-fired power plants, chemical manufacturers and other facilities along the Ohio River are piping mercury directly into the river and there’s a permitting process to regulate that, the more significant source appears to be mercury blown into the atmosphere from smokestacks — both locally and across the globe from mining, energy and other industries. The mercury eventually settles on land and flows into water.

Figuring out how much of the toxic is coming from local industries or wind currents remains a challenge. The efforts so far to get a handle on it have spurred a patchwork of states to make rules that leave it up to consumers whether it’s worth the risk to eat their catch of the day. Fish are the most important source of exposure to humans. 

There’s a legal pathway for further ratcheting down mercury releases directly to the river, but the regulated industries say they already meet strict permit requirements and that path has hit diminishing returns. The industries say the problem lies in regional and global air emissions, but the legal levers there aren’t as easy to pull.

The tension between blaming airborne or wastewater sources is one factor among many that have played into controversial decisions around mercury over the past decade at the Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission [ORSANCO] —  an interstate water quality agency created in 1948 when the Ohio River was an open sewer for cities and factories and the Clean Water Act was still decades away. 

Environmental groups have looked to ORSANCO to tighten mercury standards on wastewater discharges. Industries arguing against tighter water standards say that atmospheric sources are a bigger problem, and much of the mercury in their wastewater is in a chemical form unlikely to move through the food chain into fish. ORSANCO has moved away from regulation, a path the agency said reflects the reality that it doesn’t have the same authority as its member states’ environmental agencies or the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency [EPA].

“ORSANCO doesn’t set rules for the states,” said Richard Harrison, the agency’s executive director. “The states set rules for the states. The states agree to work through ORSANCO as a collaborative body to work globally for the Ohio River basin.”

ORSANCO’s strengths, Harrison said, are monitoring and research. In 2016, commission staff launched a broad accounting of atmospheric and wastewater mercury sources across the Ohio River watershed. The report isn’t yet published, but a presentation delivered to an ORSANCO committee meeting in October 2019 said 11% of the mercury in the Ohio River main stem comes from wastewater discharges throughout the watershed, including tributaries.

An environmental scientist who has seen preliminary results said the study has flaws, though it’s not clear if those concerns will make it into the final version expected next month. 

While ORSANCO and state authorities are bogged down in disagreements over the relative threat of atmospheric and wastewater sources and whether states should work through ORSANCO to tighten regulations across the watershed, environmental advocates say the public is worse off for having to sort through the mess. 

A hybrid striped bass from the Wabash River. A 2010 study found five of 12 hybrid striped bass samples from the Ohio River tested higher than the EPA mercury limit. Courtesy: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service – Midwest Region

The ORSANCO fish advisory website lists seven species — sauger, black bass, freshwater drum, white bass, striped bass, hybrid striped bass and flathead catfish — that shouldn’t be eaten more than once a month from one 135-mile section of the Ohio River (from the John T. Myers Locks and Dam in southern Indiana to where the river empties into the Mississippi River) due to mercury concerns. Yet the agency’s most recent annual report says the “entire river is impaired for fish consumption due to dioxin and PCBs, but fully supports fish consumption for mercury.”

“What is that telling the public?” said Jason Flickner, director of the Indiana-based Lower Ohio River Waterkeeper. “Especially when it comes down to something as important as the ability to eat the fish and remain healthy.”

Dangerous for Young Brains 

For all that’s complicated about regulating mercury, one thing is clear: It’s a potent neurotoxin that is particularly dangerous to children. Mercury persists in the environment in a few different chemical forms. One of the less common forms, methylmercury, is the most threatening to people. Industries emit some methylmercury directly; the rest is created from other forms of mercury that are digested by microbes or undergo chemical reactions in soils and sediments.

“By now, about 12 different prospective studies have documented that children’s brain development is negatively affected by methylmercury,” said Phillippe Grandjean, an environmental health scientist and professor at Harvard’s School of Public Health. “The more, the worse.”

“The results also show that EPA’s current intake limit is too high to protect the brains of the next generation,” he said. The agency has announced plans to update its “reference dose.”

Studies have also linked mercury exposure to heart disease in adults. Children exposed in the womb or through breast milk can suffer impairments to memory, language and other cognitive functions.

Anglers at the Falls of the Ohio State Park. Courtesy: William Alden/flickr

People are mostly exposed to mercury through eating contaminated fish. It’s one of a group of pollutants that when consumed by animals can build up, or “bioaccumulate,” in their tissues.

“The larger and higher up in the food chain the fish are, the more mercury,” Grandjean said. “That sounds like sports fish, right?”

Mercury-contaminated fish are common in waterways across the country, and the Ohio River is no exception. Species including angler favorites like hybrid striped bass have been found in the Ohio River with mercury above the level considered safe by the EPA. A 2010 study found five of 12 hybrid striped bass samples tested higher than the EPA mercury limit. An ORSANCO fish contaminant database shows that 36 of the 307 samples collected since 2009 with a methylmercury record appear higher than the EPA limit. 

A Ban that Lost its Teeth 

Each state along the Ohio River issues fish consumption advisories that warn against eating too much fish from the river due to mercury and other chemicals. ORSANCO supports such work by collecting fish contamination data for member states and helping to keep the warnings consistent. 

ORSANCO’s work on advisories is an example of the interstate collaboration the agency was designed to support when it was created. Its actions are guided by the votes of a board of 27 commissioners appointed by the eight member states and the federal government. 

Tom FitzGerald, director of the Kentucky Resources Council, is one of the few ORSANCO commissioners from the nonprofit environmental advocacy world. He’s a federal commissioner appointed by the Obama administration in 2014. His term lasts until he resigns or is replaced, and he jokes that his days might be numbered under the anti-regulation Trump administration.

“I kid everybody that I’m an endangered species because one of these days the administration is going to realize that I’m a holdover and they’re going to replace me,” FitzGerald said. 

FitzGerald lobbied ORSANCO for stronger water quality protections long before he was a commissioner there, including a 2003 ban on “mixing zones” for facilities with mercury and other bioaccumulative chemicals in their wastewater. Some facilities on the Ohio River that couldn’t meet mercury standards at the end of their pipes were historically allowed to instead measure pollutants at the end of a downstream mixing zone that diluted their discharges. 

“Relying on dilution …  doesn’t seem to be an appropriate pollution control strategy,” FitzGerald said. 

ORSANCO commissioners in 2003 agreed to ban any new mixing zones in the Ohio River for mercury and other toxics. Facilities already using mixing zones would have 10 years to find a way to meet standards without them. 

But by 2010, it was clear some industries wouldn’t meet the deadline. ORSANCO, despite pleas from environmental groups and the public, exempted some polluters from the ban. In 2013, they delayed the deadline to 2015. In 2015, the commissioners dropped the deadline altogether and set a goal to eliminate mixing zones “as soon as is practicable,” which would be left up to the state agencies that issue pollution permits.

“A recognition of the complexities of implementing a hard ban for existing permitted facilities really came to light,” said Harrison, ORSANCO’s executive director. “It was a recognition that the states were the best entity to work in that arena.”

According to the most recent data available from EPA’s Toxic Release Inventory, Dynegy’s Zimmer Station coal plant in Moscow, Ohio, released 100 pounds of mercury compounds into the Ohio River in 2017, the largest discharge that year. The plant is in compliance with its wastewater permit from the Ohio EPA, said Meranda Cohn, director of media relations and corporate affairs with the plant’s parent company. 

“This permit includes strict mercury discharge limits,” she said. 

Lafarge’s Joppa cement plant in Grand Chain, Illinois, released 32 pounds the same year. Clifty Creek Station, a coal plant in Madison, Indiana, released 12 pounds. It’s not clear if any of these facilities were using mixing zones. The data are self-reported by industries.

The ban on new mixing zones on the Ohio River stayed, but leaving the phase-out for existing ones up to the states has played out unevenly in these Ohio watershed states: 

  • A representative from the Ohio EPA said the state agency had phased out all mixing zones for mercury and other bioaccumulative chemicals by 2009. 
  • The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection hasn’t removed mixing zones from any permits since the ORSANCO rule changed in 2015, but the state weighs renewal applications against ORSANCO and state water quality standards “and incorporate the more stringent limit if applicable,” said DEP press secretary Elizabeth Rementer. 
  • Indiana and Kentucky have similarly not yet phased out mixing zones completely. 
  • Illinois and West Virginia’s permitting agencies did not respond to requests for comments. 

Comparing ‘apples and oranges’

According to Rob Reash, environmental scientist and principal at his consultancy company Reash Environmental, a mixing zone ban on the Ohio River wouldn’t significantly affect fish mercury levels there anyway.

An ORSANCO environmental scientist collects an Ohio River water sample for the agency’s bimonthly monitoring program, one of the several projects tracking water quality in the river. Courtesy: ORSANCO

Reash has studied mercury in water — particularly the Ohio River — for decades. He’s a member of the ORSANCO mercury committee. Reash retired last year as an environmental scientist at American Electric Power [AEP], a utility company that runs coal plants in several states along the Ohio River, and set up his own firm this year. As an AEP scientist, he published studies suggesting fish mercury levels aren’t higher near coal plants and much of the mercury in their wastewater is in chemical forms that don’t build up in animal tissues like methylmercury.

Despite consistently publishing results that argue against regulations for the industries that have funded his work, Reash said he hasn’t encountered skepticism of his work.

“One of the primary reasons I’ve been doing this research for so long is it is a priority for me to have credibility with my peers,” Reash said.  “So when I say something, I can be trusted.”

FitzGerald, who also sits on the mercury committee and is familiar with Reash’s work, agrees. 

“He knows his stuff,” he said. “He works for industry, but I think his work has been subject to some pretty significant scrutiny.”

Reash is also familiar with the preliminary results of the ORSANCO study attempting to figure out how much of the mercury in the Ohio River comes from atmospheric sources and industrial wastewater (known as “point sources”).

Referencing the October presentation that said all point sources in the basin — not just those along the main stem — account for about 11% of the instream mercury, Reash said, “That tells me that if you want to reduce mercury in water or in fish, you can’t cap up industrial discharges. It’s not going to work.”

Others familiar with the draft report say it’s a good start, but the final version will have to include important changes to accurately sort out sources of mercury.

For example, the October presentation shows an estimate of how much mercury was deposited from the atmosphere on the land area of each of the Ohio’s tributary watersheds. Those numbers are compared against industrial discharges for the same portion of the river and estimated to be 20 to 50 times larger than the local point sources. 

Joel Blum, professor of earth and environmental sciences at the University of Michigan, is familiar with a draft of the report and has seen the data presented in October. He said this comparison between atmospheric and point sources is “apples and oranges.”

The study, he said, gives a good estimate of how much mercury is deposited on the land. But not all of that mercury flows into the Ohio River.

“We know that a large amount of the mercury that is deposited to the land surface accumulates in organic rich soils and vegetation and in sediments throughout the system,” Blum said. 

“What they need to do is figure out how much of that is actually making it to the river and how much is staying put on the land,” he said. “In all likelihood, it’s a very small percentage.”

Reash agreed that some portion of the mercury is sequestered in the land and there is a level of uncertainty about the atmospheric results. But ORSANCO did the best study they could with the funding they had, he said.

“The big question once this thing gets finalized is what are ORSANCO and the states going to do with this,” he said. “Is it going to modify policy whatsoever?”

State to State Inconsistency 

Even though the atmospheric sources are the more significant source of mercury to the Ohio River, FitzGerald said policies that address industrial sources are worth looking into. 

“Do you ratchet down further those dischargers over which you do have regulatory responsibility and regulatory control? I think it’s a legitimate question and one to address to the individual states,” he said. 

The question would be whether states should apply additional restrictions under authority granted to states through Clean Water Act policies. Under those programs, states monitor lakes and streams, and those that don’t meet certain criteria — chemical concentrations, for example — are added to a list of “impaired” waters. For the most impaired waters, states are required to develop a clean-up plan called a Total Maximum Daily Load, or TMDL. Those plans calculate the total amount of a particular pollutant that is allowed to enter a waterbody. States can then apply additional scrutiny to wastewater permits in an effort to get a lake or river under that amount. 

But, it’s complicated.

Indiana has included its section of the Ohio River on its list of “impaired” waters due to high mercury levels. But the state’s Department of Environmental Management is not developing a TMDL. 

The Indiana Department of Environmental Management “has not found TMDLs to be a particularly useful tool since one of the main sources is air deposition from emissions far from Indiana,” said Barry Sneed, a department spokesman. 

The agency’s report on impaired waters also says that an Ohio River TMDL would require more than one state because it’s a boundary water between states. Across the river from Indiana, Kentucky’s state environmental agency also added its stretch of the Ohio River to its list of waters impaired from mercury. But it removed the river from that list when it said new testing methods showed that fish weren’t as contaminated with methylmercury as previously thought. 

Flickner of the Lower Ohio River Waterkeeper said inconsistencies between states like this are exactly what ORSANCO was originally designed to mitigate.

“They’re giving up the idea that they have any enforcement or can address the states on a regulatory basis at all,” Flickner said. “That’s the message that everybody is getting and there’s really nothing we can do to stop it.”

Jeff Brooks-Gillies, a freelance writer for Environmental Health News, authored this story. He can be reached at jeffgillies@gmail.com.

Good River: Stories of the Ohio is a series about the environment, economy, and culture of the Ohio River watershed, produced by seven nonprofit newsrooms. To see more, please visit ohiowatershed.org.

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Fighting for the Ohio River Watershed’s Mussels: Experts Are Working to Get to the Bottom of Their Mysterious Disappearances

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U.S. Forest Service Fisheries Research Biologist Wendell R. Haag holds a pimpleback mussel and a purple wartyback mussel to show the differences in the species. (Photo by Carrie Blackmore Smith/PublicSource)

“Will one of these fit?” Wendell R. Haag asks, holding out a couple pairs of well-worn creeking shoes he’s pulled from the back of his pickup, both decidedly larger than a ladies size 8. Haag is taking me to see an aquatic wonder, and I’ve worn the wrong shoes. In a rush out the door of my Cincinnati apartment on this chilly October morning, I chose a pair of tall waterproof rubber boots, but Haag is sure they’ll fill with water in the sometimes knee-deep stretch of the Licking River we’re about to visit.

Haag grew up near here, in Kentucky. He tells me his fascination with the bottom feeder he’s about to show me began as a child, collecting opalescent nacre shells in shades of pink, purple and peach near his home.

The curious boy became a biologist for the U.S. Forest Service and is now a leading expert in the field of freshwater mussels, with a Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers from President George W. Bush to show for it.

The Ohio River watershed includes the 981-mile main stem, from Pittsburgh to Cairo, Illinois, and also dozens of tributaries. Up and down each of these waterways, the mussel fauna changes; more of one species here, more of another there, different assortments determined by their immediate environments. 

About 130 mussels species have been recorded in the Ohio River system — the most of any other river system on Earth except the Mississippi, because it includes the Ohio.

Haag has taken me to a specific spot on the Licking River to see an environment that supports more types of mussels than just about anywhere. Roughly 40 species have been recorded here, though several are no longer present. For scope, 16 species have been found in all of Europe. 

U.S. Forest Service Fisheries Research Biologist Wendell R. Haag talks about the freshwater mussels that live in this stretch of the Licking River near Butler, Kentucky. (Photo by Carrie Blackmore Smith/PublicSource)

“Very few people know any of this,” says Haag, standing in shorts, a raincoat and a Mississippi National Forest Stream Team ball cap. He adds that even fewer people understand the vital role mussels play in the environment. 

Mussels are good monitors of stream quality; they purify water, provide a structural habitat and food for other organisms and ease something known as nutrient overload, often caused by farm fertilizer run-off and water treatment practices. Mussels can naturally recycle and store some of these nutrients.

A lot of people don’t realize that humans are responsible for the extinction of at least 11 mussel species that once lived in the watershed and that about 70% are considered “imperiled,” meaning their rapid and continuous declines put them at risk of becoming extinct.

Haag is chasing after some answers behind the diminishing population.

“When I go out and look for mussels where they should be, they are disappearing,” Haag says, “time and time again.” Haag has a hypothesis as to why and a plan to test it. “Before I retire, I want to prove what is doing this.”

American Progress Hit Mussels Hard

Let’s just say Jeremy Tiemann is comfortable in a wetsuit. The aquatic ecologist has spent 22 years exploring freshwater habitats, many in the Ohio River watershed. At his job at the Illinois Natural History Survey, housed at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, his work informs how environmental regulations are set in the Prairie State for mussels and other freshwater fauna. 

For all he’s seen, Tiemann is fairly confident that no other aquatic organisms have taken a bigger hit from American progress than the freshwater mollusks, mussels and snails.

“We completely changed the way the river behaves,” Tiemann says by phone from his office, and that’s not a good thing for these sensitive animals.

Tiemann did his master’s thesis on the impact of low head dams on stream ecosystems. While many species suffered setbacks and death from their construction, it specifically devastated many mussel species. It led to extinctions and substantially reduced population densities.

Why? First, the Ohio River was not naturally as deep as it is today. During a dry spell, people could walk across a lot of it. Locks and dams began to be constructed on the Ohio River around 1885 to raise the water level and allow for easier navigation, with the final dam in that system completed in 1929. In the 1950s, the dam system was modernized by the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers to improve flood protection and raise the water level for barges to transport materials like coal and salt.

This stretch of the Licking River near Butler, Kentucky, contains up to 40 species of freshwater mussels. (Photo by Carrie Blackmore Smith/PublicSource)

Mussels typically like free-flowing water, Tiemann explains. Dams pool the water up behind them and create more pond- or lake-like qualities. Silt and debris built up, suffocating mussels. It also restricts fish migrations, which affects mussels because some use fish to complete their life cycles.

People also built dams on smaller tributaries, channelized streams and began discharging mine and industrial waste into the waters. 

So, while the Ohio River watershed has some of the greatest diversity of freshwater mussels anywhere on the planet, they’re in a precarious position, Tiemann says. 

Pollution spills happen with some frequency and can kill them. They were harvested in some areas a few decades ago, when mussel shells were commonly used to make buttons. Mussels have also had to fight for their place against invasive species like the Zebra mussel, a fingernail-sized mollusk native to freshwaters in Eurasia. It is believed they arrived in North America in the 1980s on large ships from Europe, and they crowded out some native mussels early on.

“We are now starting to realize the true effects of the loss of mussels, and some of us want to improve their numbers and mitigate the problems that they face,” Tiemann says. 

This includes reintroduction and rescue missions. Tiemann continues to monitor a 13-year project that involved moving populations of two endangered species of mussels away from a spot in the Allegheny River in Pennsylvania. The Hunter Station Bridge replacement was expected to kill the creatures. Tiemann and his team moved them to some streams in Illinois, while colleagues in the field moved them to six other states in the watershed.

Tiemann says many of the mussels are still living. But his team has yet to see evidence of reproduction, which is ultimately what they want to see. Juvenile mussels are extremely difficult to find so it could be another decade or more before they know if the mussels are reproducing. 

Every day, he says, researchers learn more and more about these creatures. 

“We have more people studying mussels and coming together than ever before,” Tiemann says, adding that the Freshwater Mollusk Conservation Society started with a handful of people in 1989. Now they are 500 strong, worldwide, with European and South American contingents. Founders now have students in leadership positions.

Critical to the Ecosystem, Not Your Diet

U.S. Forest Service Fisheries Research Biologist Wendell R. Haag demonstrates how he looks for freshwater mussels with a bucket that he altered to have a clear bottom, perfect for looking at the riverbed. This stretch of the Licking River near Butler, Kentucky, holds one of the most diverse populations of these bivalves in the world. (Photo by Carrie Blackmore Smith/PublicSource)

Back on the Licking River, Haag has his head in a blue Lowe’s bucket, which he has modified with plexiglass to create a clear bottom. 

Nah, you don’t want to eat these mussels, Haag says, pushing the bucket down and sweeping the river floor to find a live one. 

Native Americans sometimes ate them but more often they would ground up the shells to temper pottery, Haag says. He’s eaten them and says, “They taste awful.” He’s used to first question being whether they’re edible, but he says there’s plenty of other reasons to want to keep mussels around.

Haag has found one in the water. The tip of its two shells is all that’s visible. It’s probably a big one, Haag tells me, carefully wiggling it out of the dirt and lifting the creature out of the water. 

U.S. Forest Service Fisheries Research Biologist Wendell R. Haag holds a mussel shell. Like a tree, each ring on the shell indicates a year of growth. There are roughly 40 types of freshwater mussels in this stretch of the Licking River near Butler, Kentucky, one of the most diverse populations in the world. (Photo by Carrie Blackmore Smith/PublicSource)

The common name for this one is a pink heelsplitter, he says, because they have an elongated wing that protrudes from the stream bottom and could split your foot. The nacre on the inside of their shells is a pinkish purple. The mussel ejects a thin stream of water and retracts a large slimy foot, which it uses to maneuver itself short distances in the riverbed to stay submerged in the stream.

Like with many trees, each ring on the shell of many native mussels represents one year of growth. Most live 20 to 50 years but some live past 100, Haag says. 

It’s hard to imagine mussels suddenly disappearing from a place like this, but Haag has grown accustomed to seeing it happen. He’ll visit a place last documented to have a healthy population of mussels and instead find only dead shells mixed with old mussels past the reproductive stage. It’s only a matter of time before it becomes a shell graveyard.

In his years of research and considering other peer-reviewed work, Haag says he believes only two things could be the cause of the decline: either a disease that has not yet been identified or the Corbicula (Asian clam), an invasive species that has been thought to be harmless for decades.

He hopes an answer will help save these creatures whose benefits are just now being understood and, in some cases, harnessed by humans. 

There is now a discussion about putting a monetary figure on mussels.

A paper on the topic was released in March 2018 in Hydrobiologia, an international journal of aquatic sciences. The authors called for more research on the economic, social and ecological value of mussels as well as “tools that will allow us to value mussel ecosystem services in a way that is understandable to both the public and to policy makers.”

U.S. Forest Service Fisheries Research Biologist Wendell R. Haag holds a pimpleback mussel and a purple wartyback mussel to show the differences in the species. (Photo by Carrie Blackmore Smith/PublicSource)

Haag says it can’t hurt to determine a mussel’s worth. 

Suddenly, he lets out a yip of excitement. He can’t believe our luck. 

Haag waves me over. We peer through the bottom of the bucket together. It’s a plain pocketbook mussel doing something researchers only confirmed the function of in the 1990s. 

The mussel pushes two flaps of her mantle out of her shell in a way that looks deceivingly like two minnows. She is trying to lure a fish by mimicking its prey. When a fish approaches and opens wide, the mussel will spray her larvae into the fish’s face, hoping to hit the gills. There, the baby mussels will attach themselves as parasites and feed off the blood of the fish. The general consensus, Haag says, is they are a relatively benign parasite. Damage to the fish is relatively rare.

It gets wilder. After they attach, they metamorphosize like a caterpillar into a butterfly. They change form — from a glochidia (parasitic microscopic larvae) to a bivalve with a shell.

At this stage, they fall off of the fish, land on the bottom of the stream floor and basically stay put. Studies show that pocketbooks only use bass as a host. “So, it’s integral that those fish are here, too,” Haag says.

‘Fight for these guys’ 

Biologist Janet Clayton is laying some knowledge on the next generation of mussel experts at the annual meeting of the Ohio River Valley Mollusk Group on a November morning.

Clayton has worked with mussels in West Virginia for three decades and has developed mussel surveying methods widely adopted in the field. She’s about to retire.

At the Thomas More University Biology Field Station near Cincinnati, water is circulated from the river into the building, where university staff and students study inhabitants, including mussels and fish. (Photo by Carrie Blackmore Smith/PublicSource)

Today, gathered at the Thomas More University Biology Field Station on the Ohio River in California, Kentucky, she’s passing on specific advice. Her tips include the best brand of glue to adhere tags to a mussel’s shell and the way to sweep an area for mussels to count them properly. 

“Now, it is your turn to fight for these guys,” Clayton tells the group, her voice catching. “Stay true to the resource.” The room, made up of roughly 40 biologists, ecologists, environmental consultants and scholars from six states, gives her a warm round of applause. 

The morning talks wrap up and a discussion begins over the difficulty in getting the public to care about these unseen creatures. “How do we reach them?” one woman asks. 

Professor Christopher Lorentz, director of Thomas More’s environmental science program, runs the facility, lab and conference space, which was originally built as a lock house in the Ohio’s first system of locks and dams. Lorentz, university staff and students study the river and its inhabitants there. Water is circulated from the river to raise and observe its fish, mussels and more.

Mussels are being raised at the Thomas More University Biology Field Station on the Ohio River near Cincinnati. (Photo by Carrie Blackmore Smith/PublicSource)

U.S. Fish and Wildlife, state natural resource departments and nonprofits are working together to review impact of dams and cases where they could be removed. Organizations such as the Ohio River Foundation and The Nature Conservancy have been involved in dam removal and education about mussels. When a permit expires, the state or federal government generally reviews its impact on the environment to decide if it should be replaced or removed, Tiemann says. 

It’s exciting, Lorentz says, to see the synergy between states and experts in the watershed. Scientists are learning more about mussels, “yet, there are some species that aren’t doing well in pristine areas.” And if we can’t figure that out, Lorentz says we can move them around, we can try to preserve them — but what will that do if the mysterious threat is still out there?

Haag says he thinks scientists need to look at the larger patterns and characteristics of the population decline and then focus in more closely on what could cause them. He continues to build on experiments he began in 2015 but fears one day he’ll arrive at this place — one of his favorite stretches of river — and find only dead mussels. But not today. Today we’ll see plenty of mussels, including the fanshell currently listed as endangered. 

“Can you imagine?” Haag says. “It’s like walking into a forest that you know and there are no trees.” He walks on ahead with his bucket and talks of changing the outcome.

Carrie Blackmore Smith, a freelance journalist based in Cincinnati, Ohio, authored this story for PublicSource. She can be reached at carrieblackmoresmith@gmail.com.

This story was fact-checked by Sierra Smith.

Good River: Stories of the Ohio is a series about the environment, economy and culture of the Ohio River watershed, produced by seven nonprofit newsrooms. To see more, please visit ohiowatershed.org.

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