Ohio Dirtiest River, PennEnvironment Study Finds

Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
23 March 2012
By Rick Wills

From the choice of photo on the report's cover to its portrait of contaminants in the nation's rivers, environmental experts questioned a study released on Thursday that said the Ohio River has more industrial pollutants than any major river in the country.

PennEnvironment, a nonprofit, environmental advocacy group, prepared the 48-page report, "Wasting Our Waterways 2012." It paints a harrowing picture of the country's rivers and lakes and ranks Pennsylvania seventh among the states in toxic industrial emissions that get into waterways.

The state Department of Environmental Protection said the report's cover photo, showing a pipe pumping dark, murky water into what appears to be a waterway, is an edited version of a stock photo showing dark-colored water gushing from a pipe into a contained treatment facility. The photo is from Shutterstock, a website with stock photos.

"This kind of report should be based on facts and science, and to use that as a visual calls into question the organization's credibility," said Katy Gresh, a DEP spokeswoman.

The report says more than half of the country's rivers and streams and about 70 percent of lakes are unfit for recreation. The 1972 Clean Water Act mandated elimination of toxic discharges into waterways by 1985, which has not happened.

"Pennsylvania's waterways are a polluter's paradise right now," said Erika Staaf, clean water advocate with PennEnvironment.

Staaf did not respond to phone calls about the photograph.

Even though the goals of the Clean Water Act have not been met, some experts said, there has been major improvement.

"Rivers are much better than they were. Things are not getting better as fast as we would like. But industries have clear limits to what they can discharge, there are pretty stringent reviews of chemicals industry can use, and we have not had rivers catch on fire, like the Cuyahoga River, for a long, long time," said Brian Dempsey, a civil and environmental engineering professor at Penn State University and an expert in drainage and wastewater.

The report noted that toxic chemical emissions in Pennsylvania declined from 10.7 million pounds in 2007, when the state was the country's sixth-biggest polluter, to 10.1 million pounds in 2010, the last year for which figures are available.

Two years ago, the Ohio River received 32 million pounds of toxins, according to the report. PennEnvironment said it took its numbers from the Environmental Protection Agency's Toxics Release Inventory. The river's tributaries received 13 million pounds. More than 20 percent of the toxics released into all U.S. waterways in 2010 were released into the Ohio or its tributaries, the report stated.

The Monongahela River was the nation's 17th-most contaminated river in 2010 and was the 21st in 2007, the report stated.

"The report does not specify what toxics are in the waterways. It also talks about nitrates, which are generally from agricultural runoff. They are a big problem, but they are not toxic or from heavy industry," said Albert Ettinger, a lawyer who represents Environmental Law & Policy Center, a Chicago environmental advocacy organization.

PennEnvironment has been criticized before for its choice of photographs. In September, after flooding from Hurricane Lee damaged swaths of central Pennsylvania, The Patriot-News in Harrisburg reported that PennEnvironment had placed a photo of a submerged drilling rig on its Facebook page and tweeted the photo saying, "Here's more evidence Marcellus shale drilling pads should NOT be allowed in flood plains."

That photo was of a flooded rig in Pakistan. The group apologized.

Rick Wills can be reached at rwills@tribweb.com or 412-320-7944.