‘That’s Vinegar’: The Ohio River’s History Of Contamination And Progress

The Ohio River is a lot cleaner than it used to be. But pollution still threatens aquatic life and creates water unfit for human consumption.

In 1958, researchers from the University of Louisville and the Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission gathered at a lock on the Monongahela River for routine collecting, counting and comparing of fish species.

At the time, the best way to accomplish this was what’s called lock chamber sampling, or filling a 350-by-56-foot lock with river water, injecting it with cyanide and waiting for the dead fish to float to the top. Archaic, but effective.

On this particular day, researchers opened the chamber to find one fish inside.

One fish.

It shouldn’t have been surprising, said Jerry Schulte, a biologist who managed the source water protection and emergency response team for the Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission (ORSANCO) for more than two decades. After all, the steel companies that dotted the region’s riverbanks were dumping their contaminated water right into the rivers. The waterways were so acidic that the steel-hulled boats meant to last 20 years rusted out in three and the pH routinely measured less than 4.

“That’s vinegar,” Schulte said. “It was so polluted, you could see it, smell it and taste it.”

By the time Schulte began monitoring fish species in the 1990s, thanks to environmental and industrial regulations like the Clean Water Act, the Ohio River and its major tributaries, including the Mon, had changed. They no longer looked or smelled like open sewers. Mayflies hatched on their surfaces; many pollution-intolerant aquatic species returned; and lock chamber sampling — done without cyanide — could yield hundreds, even thousands, of fish.

“It’s a functioning ecosystem now,” Schulte said.

Functioning doesn’t mean perfect, however. As recently as 2015, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency named the Ohio River one of the country’s most polluted. Industrial contaminants, including the “forever chemical” perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), have been detected on long stretches of the river and toxic algal blooms erupt when conditions are just right. Still, most of the time, the majority of the river’s 981 miles are ripe for recreation and fit for drinking after proper treatment.

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