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Great Lakes Article:

Ohio's waters more polluted
Bacteria, heavy metals are main culprits
By Dan Klepal
The Cincinnati Enquirer
01/23/04


More Ohio waterways are imperiled by pollution than two years ago, and only one river in the state meets federal clean water standards for swimming, fishing, boating and other recreational uses.

The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency's analysis, released last week, said the majority of Ohio's rivers, streams and lakes are considered "impaired'' because of high concentrations of bacteria from raw sewage and heavy metals.

Officials have warned that people should not eat more than one fish meal a month out of the Ohio River because the fish could contain mercury or other contaminants that can cause cancer or other disorders. Authorities also say that on most days the water is not safe for recreational use - like water skiing or swimming - because of high bacteria counts.

Linda Oros, spokeswoman for the Ohio EPA, said this year's report is worse because the analysis is tougher. Previous reports, she said, did not account for bacteria levels from sewage, or advisories against eating too much fish from polluted waterways.

The agency compiles the report every two years.

Oros said the agency hopes to develop plans to clean up 80 Ohio rivers by this summer.

The report grades watersheds - or geographical drainage areas - because pollutants are washed by rains from farms, roads, junkyards, industry and other sources into watersheds.

"When we were just measuring (pollution in) waterways, we found contamination coming from somewhere, but we weren't looking at the whole ecosystem to see how one thing impacted another," Oros said.

Mike Fremont, president emeritus for Rivers Unlimited, called the report "embarrassing."

"If somebody trashes your village green, are you proud of it? Our rivers are part of our village green. They are a paradise for a lot of people. We will have something of tremendous value if we can restore those that are trashed," he said.

Rivers Unlimited is a Cincinnati-based group of citizens that works to restore, maintain and improve Ohio's 61,000 miles of rivers and streams.

The report found 242 watersheds and 21 large rivers throughout Ohio not meeting federal water quality standards, and in need of a clean-up plan. That's up from 205 watersheds and 15 large rivers identified in its 2002 report. The only stream that complies is the Raccoon Creek in south-central Ohio.

Andy Buchsbaum, director of the National Wildlife Federation's Great Lakes office, said the problem with the federal law requiring such water quality reports is that it does not force states to clean up the pollution.

States have a decade to write clean-up plans once a watershed is identified as not meeting standards.

"There is no defined time period required to complete the clean-ups," said Buchsbaum, whose organization sued the Ohio EPA in 2001, alleging the state was not coming up with clean-up plans fast enough. That lawsuit is pending.

Ohio River included

Among the imperiled waterways in the report is the Ohio River, which has pollution from chemicals such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and dioxins - among the worlds' most toxic man-made chemicals. PCBs have been linked to a variety of human health problems such as cancer, brain damage and problems with the immune system.

Analysis of the Ohio River was performed by the Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission and will be included in the OEPA's final report, which will be sent to the federal Environmental Protection Agency as required by law.

Peter Tennant, executive director for the sanitary commission, said the river is suitable for human contact - unless it rains. That's when raw sewage overflows from outdated systems up and down the river, causing bacteria levels to rise to dangerous levels.

"We rarely have an instance where it perfectly meets the criteria," Tennant said.

Tennant said PCBs and dioxins have been banned for more than a decade, but still pose a problem in the river because they don't break down over time.

"It's almost a blast from the past," Tennant said. "We don't know if what we're seeing in fish is from active discharges or stuff that's been around for years."

Your chances of finding fish from the Ohio River in a grocery store, or on the menu at any restaurant in Greater Cincinnati, are about as slim as a dorsal fin, said John Kinsella, a master chef and instructor at Cincinnati State Technical and Community College.

Most grocery and restaurant operators won't risk serving fish from the river because most species carry high levels of chemical contaminants. Commercial suppliers are required by the Food and Drug Administration to deliver fish with certificates of origin that tell where the fish were harvested.

"It's very doubtful that you would come across a fish from the Ohio River, because most people wouldn't buy fish from the Ohio River," Kinsella said. "The risk is just too great. All it takes is one instance of chemical poisoning from tainted fish and you could be out of business.

"I wouldn't eat anything out of the Ohio River. Would you?"

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