The Ohio River, a drinking water source for many West Virginians and millions in neighboring states, is the second “most endangered” river in the nation, according to the group American Rivers.
Its latest report cited discharges of mercury, dioxins and chemicals known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances among the pollutants from manufacturing as threats to human and environmental health.
Heather Sprouse, Ohio River coordinator for the West Virginia Rivers Coalition, said the Norfolk Southern train derailment and chemical spill in East Palestine, Ohio, highlights the need for long-term river monitoring and disaster preparedness.
She added the city of Huntington hastily built a second water intake on the Guyandotte River after the spill out of an abundance of caution, as tens of thousands of gallons of industrial chemicals moved downriver.
“The Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission, they were the organization that was most prepared to track this pollution in real time as it moved down the Ohio River.,” Sprouse explained.
Around half of the nation’s rivers and streams are considered too polluted for fishing or swimming, according to a 2022 report by the Environmental Integrity Project.
Sprouse emphasized environmental groups are calling on Congress to designate the Ohio River as a protected water system, which opens the door to hundreds of millions of dollars in investments for water monitoring equipment upgrades and ecosystem restoration.
She noted the Great Lakes, Puget Sound and the Everglades are already specially designated.
“While there’s a number of waters that receive significant and sustained federal funding right now, the Ohio River doesn’t receive any,” Sprouse pointed out. “The goal is to change that.”
The Ohio River watershed covers more than 200,000 square miles and provides habitat for 150 species of fish and many endangered species, including the candy darter, diamond darter, and several species of mussels and crawfish.