American Rivers
American Rivers

Federal Investment Needed to Protect and Restore the Ohio River

Ohio River | Photo by Lori Coleman

30 million people in 14 states, from New York to Mississippi, are connected by the great Ohio River watershed – the primary drinking water source of over 5 million people. The Ohio River is a vital natural resourcethe backbone of the environment, the economy, the culture, and the history for the communities that live along the mainstream and throughout the region.

But the upper river in Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia and eastern Kentucky drains from areas affected by environmental pollution due to a legacy of heavy industrialization. This legacy includes mining and resource extraction for energy development, chemical production, and durable goods manufacturing. These forms of industrialization have resulted in significant discharges of toxic chemicals, including both legacy chemicals (such as mercury and dioxins) and chemicals of emerging concern (especially PFAS and Gen-X chemicals) as well as acid mine drainage. This pollution threatens human and ecosystem health.

A lack of federal investment leaves the Ohio River watershed – and, by extension, the surrounding communities – vulnerable. The recent chemical release from the Norfolk Southern train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio resulted in harmful air pollution and hazardous butyl acrylate leaked into the Ohio River. This chemical disaster has damaged the community’s health and way of life, leaving the future of this entire village uncertain. The chemical release in East Palestine serves as a warning: immediate federal investment is needed to protect the future of communities and health throughout the Ohio River watershed.

The federal government substantially invests in restoring great waters every year. Many water systems, such as the Great Lakes, Chesapeake Bay and Puget Sound, receive substantial targeted funding to address serious threats. The Ohio River Basin does not. The good news is that people are coming together from around the region with the goal of adding the Ohio River to the list of federally restored water systems. Led by voices from communities all along the river, the Ohio River Basin Alliance (ORBA), is developing a plan that is expected to be released this summer to highlight the problems and solutions that communities have identified that need to be prioritized. It will be essential for members of Congress to support and fund this plan before the problems get worse and more expensive to solve.

To protect the health and wellbeing of Ohio River Basin communities, Congress must follow ORBA’s lead and act to add the Ohio River to the list of our nation’s great water systems that receive significant, sustained federal funding each year.

These investments will provide local communities with the tools needed to ensure the Ohio River endures as a vital and abundant resource for the region.

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