Skip to content

The long route to a cleaner Ohio River

April 21, 2010

How’s this for a description of the Ohio River?

One report … described “black creosote that oozes from a wood processing plant to coat the sides of a ditch; foul looking rubbery suds that drive swimmers and boaters out of the Ohio River in disgust; black, stinking sewage, improperly treated, that roils the water of the river into a soupy brew; avalanches of garbage that line the steep banks of Beargrass Creek and tumble down into the water.”

Eddie Hubbard casts his line into the Ohio River on earlier this month at English Park. "I think the water is still too cold," Hubbard said. (M-I photo by John Dunham)

That’s from the Louisville Courier-Journal in 1967, and was included in a C-J article today by James Bruggers about how far the river has come since the first Earth Day 40 years ago.

I recall being amazed when learning that here in Owensboro, most of the local sewage still flowed directly into the river until the 1950s, when treatment plans began to gear up. It’s not surprising that riverfront development wasn’t a priority a generation or two ago given the atmosphere the river bank must have had in places.

But progress has been slower in the past two decades than it was in the 1970s and 1980s, according to the article.

From the Courier-Journal

A stench from improperly treated sewage has mostly gone away.

Industries no longer indiscriminately dump toxic chemicals in the water, and fish and boaters have returned.

Yet much of that cleanup happened in the first 20 years after the first Earth Day, when 20 million people rallied in the United States on behalf of Mother Nature, prompting Congress to pass the Clean Water Act in 1972.

In recent decades, progress has slowed — and health authorities still recommend that anyone swimming in the river take a shower afterward and don’t overdo how much of the fish they eat.

“When we look at the last 20 years, we have not seen significant changes in water quality improvements in this country,” said Bowling Green attorney LaJuana S. Wilcher, who ran the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s water programs during the administration of President George H.W. Bush, and more recently was former Kentucky Gov. Ernie Fletcher’s top environmental regulator.

Much of the pressure is still on wastewater treatment agencies such as Regional Water Resource Agency, which handles local sewage in the Owensboro area, but Wilcher said many of the pollutants of today aren’t coming out of plant pipes or sewer lines.

Further progress, according to Wilcher and others, will depend on paying more attention to pollutants coming into the Ohio River through its 50,000 miles of tributaries, including:

—Storm water washing fertilizers, pesticides, oil, bits of tire rubber and countless tons of eroded dirt into the river.

—Thousands of chemicals such as human and veterinary prescriptions, over-the-counter drugs, cosmetics, and growth-enhancing chemicals used in livestock operations finding their way into the water. Drugs, for instance, aren’t entirely absorbed by the body and get past water treatment efforts, and some studies suggest some substances may be producing “intersex fish,” with both male and female traits.

Living up to the often moving standards established by the Clean Water Act can be challenging and expensive – just ask the Kentucky cities including Owensboro that are facing deadlines to plan and complete projects to reduce the number of combined sewer outfall events – the times when the stormwater and sewage levels are too great for the system to handle and the overflow heads into the river. It’s apparent that the pursuit of cleaner water in the Ohio will require more than what’s being done in local wastewater treatment plants and systems.

There’s certainly more that can be done to clean up the Ohio River, but it’s reassuring to see how far the river has come in being returned to a cleaner state.


Update –

James Bruggers, who wrote the article on the Ohio River for today’s Courier-Journal, posted a comment below noting that he has a few pictures of the river in the Louisville area from 1969 and 1971 showing some of the sludge and “scum” that was dumped into the river prior to the Clean Water Act.

You can view the photos on the blog he writes for the C-J, Watchdog Earth.

Thanks for letting us know about the photos, James.


One Comment
  1. April 21, 2010 11:24 am

    Thanks for mentioning and citing the story that my newspaper ran today on the Ohio River, 40 years after the first Earth Day. If your readers want to see the full story, they can find a link to it from my blog, which also shows a couple of amazing photos from four decades ago.
    Look here, please:

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: