Industrial Pollutants and the Ohio River

The recent spill of the chemical MCHM in West Virginia recalled an era when our drinking water wasn’t so well protected from industrial pollutants.

Jan 22, 2014 at 11:04 am

The recent spill of the chemical MCHM in West Virginia recalled an era when our drinking water wasn’t so well protected from industrial pollutants.  

Coincidentally, the Enquirer reported how our drinking water could be threatened by new plans to ship “fracking” waste down the Ohio.

All of this recalls our 1977 immersion course in drinking water protection. That’s when carbon tetrachloride leaking from a West Virginia company was detected flowing into Cincinnati drinking water. 

It was my first big story as Enquirer environment reporter. By the time we knew that water contaminated by carbon tet had poured from our taps, the rest of that suspected carcinogen already was downstream. We’d been caught utterly unaware. 

Obviously, West Virginia chemical plants and storage facilities continue to pollute rivers that flow into the Ohio. This year, it was the Elk; in 1977, carbon tet spilled into the Kanawha.  

My carbon tet stories began at USEPA’s new water research lab near UC where studies used a tanker filled from the Ohio River. 

Leading EPA researchers went public after finding unexpected levels of carbon tet.  

Public reactions approached panic. 

Forget gratitude. Many blamed EPA scientists and technicians for not spotting the spill earlier and for not protecting our drinking water.  

That was unfair; they weren’t regulators and the Ohio wasn’t their responsibility. Their mission was to produce science on which national water quality standards could be based. I’m not sure my stories ever got that distinction across. To many people, “EPA” meant enforcement and it had failed. 

As we learned and I reported, the only enforcer along the whole river was the Corps of Engineers. Its job was to maintain a deep channel for commercial traffic from Pittsburgh to Cairo, Ill.

Pollution was someone else’s responsibility. Or wasn’t. 

Some attention focused on ORSANCO, the Cincinnati-based Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission that works with eight states to reduce pollution.

However, ORSANCO had little effective enforcement authority, executive director Peter Tennant confirmed recently. It could ask a federal court to order someone “to stop doing something but we don’t use it as a general rule.” 

Instead, enforcement was left to states and feds and that was a slender reed to lean on in 1977 when modern clean water laws and regulations were developing.   

However, once the carbon tet spill became a public issue, Congressman and former Cincinnati Mayor Tom Luken splashed everyone with blame. Lots of people, not least at EPA, resented Luken’s scattershot name-calling. However, his forceful bluster got things done. No one benefited more than Cincinnatians.  

Most important was the multisite monitoring system created the length of the Ohio. The first of its kind and since modernized, the system provides water treatment plants with timely warnings when pollutants and toxins are detected.  

However, it’s not a universal pollution spotter. Most monitors are tuned to chemicals for which riverside industries have federal discharge permits. The latest chemical spill, Crude MCHM (4-methylcyclohexane methanol), was supposed to be stored, not discharged. 

ORSANCO’s Tennant said his monitors would have missed it but for a West Virginia warning.  However, Tennant’s staff  “tweaked” their monitors and provided timely warnings downstream. That’s how Northern Kentucky Water District and Cincinnati riverside Miller plant on Kellogg Avenue knew when to close their intakes. Local testing confirmed the efficacy of those advisories. 

A local but significant response to the 1977 scare was creation of granular activated carbon (GAC) filtration at Cincinnati’s riverside treatment plant.  

Using carbon to filter organic chemicals is old technology, but no one had used GAC to treat a city’s water. Here, GAC began as an experiment, moved to a successful pilot project, and today it removes organic chemicals from 88 percent of all water distributed by Greater Cincinnati Water Works. The remaining 12 percent is drawn from Butler County wells in the Great Miami aquifer and does not require GAC filtration. 

Still another positive outcome to the 1977 carbon tet spill was ORSANCO’s heightened stature among operators of water treatment plants, Tennant said. “We’ve become the go-to source for drinking water people.”

The chemical in the latest West Virginia spill was used to reduce coal ash. It leaked from an old Freedom Industries storage tank into the Elk River about a mile upstream from the regional drinking water intake. MCHM contaminated drinking water for nine counties before intakes could be closed. As is too common, the wall or berm required to contain a spill or leak failed. The MCHM “containment” would have required only a walk-past to ascertain its inadequacy. 

Whatever follows, it’ll be in West Virginia. MCHM and carbon tet spills are history. 

However, new threats to drinking water drawn from the Ohio are giving reporters plenty of opportunity: risks of spills and leaks, health hazards, fragmented government and corporate responsibility, state and federal regulations and enforcement, etc. 

The Enquirer has begun writing about an industry proposal to barge briny wastewater from fracking down the Ohio. That’s cheaper than trucking it to whatever state accepts the waste for disposal in deep injection wells. 

Drillers use millions of gallons of water in fracking to break up underground shale and extract oil and natural gas. Each driller treats chemicals in its wastewater as a proprietary secret. So far, the Enquirer reports, the Coast Guard hasn’t decided whether to accept fracking waste barges. Only the Coast Guard, which regulates shipping on the Ohio, appears to have the authority to demand access to proprietary information about contents of those shipments. 

That suggests that ORSANCO’s monitors might not be tweaked in time to spot fracking waste leaking from a breached or sunken barge. Similarly, staffs at downstream water works won’t know how to adjust their tests and treatments to cope with fracking chemicals if they don’t know what’s flowing toward them. 

Then there’s another potentially big Ohio River drinking water story. I’ve found little in our local news media about the proposed Bluegrass Pipeline. It would carry natural gas liquids from hydraulic fracking wells from Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia to Clermont County. From there, the pipeline would cross the Ohio River to Bracken County. From Bracken County, the pipeline would cross Kentucky to a southbound pipeline at Hardinsburg and flow to what developers call “the rapidly expanding petrochemical and export complex on the U.S. Gulf Coast.”

But first it has to cross the Ohio River just a few miles upstream of drinking water intakes in Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky. 

What happens if the pipeline leaks on the land in southwest Ohio? That’s a story.  

How will it cross the river? That’s a story. 

If or when it leaks into the Ohio, can any system assure treatment plant operators enough warning to close intakes? 

That’s a story. 

Or will we find out about a massive spill or leak again, only after polluted water flows out of our taps? That’s the story. 

CONTACT BEN L. KAUFMAN: [email protected]