Ohio River, running hundreds of miles along West Virginia border, is ranked among most endangered

The Ohio River, although deep and mighty, needs help.

American Rivers, a national advocacy organization, placed the Ohio near the top of its 2023 list of America’s Most Endangered Rivers. 

The Ohio River, of course, forms West Virginia’s western boundary, from Chester in the north to Kenova in the south.

The river’s use for and near industrial operations is a major factor, according to American Rivers. The organization cited the Feb. 3 train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, and the release of toxic chemicals as an example.

American Rivers is calling for the embrace of an Ohio River Restoration Plan, a collaborative effort meant to safeguard drinking water, support the ecological well-being of the river and invest in quality of life for communities along the waterway.

“This is a list that really highlights the opportunities we have to invest in river restoration and river health,” said Heather Sprouse, Ohio River coordinator for West Virginia Rivers Coalition.

“The Ohio River was chosen because it has deep culture and historical value to our communities as well as being really the backbone of our economy and, importantly, serves as the primary drinking water source of over 5 million people.”

The dangers include a legacy of historical and emerging chemical releases, acid mine drainage, threats from bacteria and algae and increased likelihood of flooding related to climate change, she said.

Those all represent reasons to protect the Ohio River as a resource, Sprouse said.

“This is really an opportunity to highlight what’s so great about the Ohio River, everything from it nourishing our small businesses and local community economies to being a transportation corridor as well as really a hub for recreation — nature-based, both on our waters and our public lands.

“So this is an opportunity to really highlight all that makes the Ohio River so wonderful as well as talk about some potential solutions.”

The many ways that the Ohio River is used — for recreation, for transportation, for industrial purposes, for drinking water — makes its preservation a challenge, Sprouse said.

“The Ohio River is really a complexity for our region. It’s almost a thousand miles long from the beginning in Pittsburgh to the confluence with Mississippi in Cairo, Illinois,” she said. “And there are multiple uses, everything from industry to transportation to recreation and, of course, drinking water.”

The upper river valley, particularly in Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia and eastern Kentucky, drains from areas affected by environmental pollution related to the region’s industrial legacy, she said.

“So these forms of industrialization have resulted in significant discharges of chemicals — both legacy chemicals like mercury but also chemicals of emerging concern such as PFAS, as well as acid mine drainage,” Sprouse said.

“The best science shows us that these toxic pollutants have serious health impacts both to humans and ecosystems. So the challenge with the Ohio River is really balancing the many ways that the river really transforms and supports our public health, our ecosystems, our community well-being and finding a way that really helps this vital, precious resource to be preserved for future generations.”

The Ohio River receives significant protections under the Clean Water Act, but unlike other great waters of the nation such as the Chesapeake Bay or the Great Lakes, Sprouse said, the Ohio River does not receive federally-funded restoration.

“I think we’re really missing out on a great opportunity — and that’s what we’re working towards — is adding the Ohio River to the list of these great waters that are federally-invested in each year,” Sprouse said.

The Ohio River Congressional Caucus could be influential in that effort, she said.

A coalition of groups released a statement advocating for increased federal financial support for Ohio River restoration.

“We look forward to working with members of Congress and the Biden Administration to elevate Ohio River restoration and protection as a national priority. We have solutions, and it is time to use them, before the problems get worse and more expensive to solve,” those groups stated. 

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