The Mad Hatter Resides at ORSANCO


A proposal change to water quality standards for the Ohio River could result in eight states permitting the discharge of greater amounts of mercury into the river. Mercury earned the nickname “mad hatter” because hat makers exposed to the toxin suffered neurologic damage. Today, the pollutant is emitted by coal fired power plants which allow particles to settle on water surfaces. New power plants, in compliance with the Clean Air Act, scrub mercury from smokestacks and later mix mercury in wastewater before discharging into waterways. Finally, a few manufacturing processes still use mercury and discharge the toxin as wastewater. 

Mercury is commonly thought of in its elemental form and is safe if stable. If disrupted, such as with a broken older style thermometer, elemental mercury creates an invisible, odorless toxic vapor. Prevalent in our environment is methyl mercury which is formed when mercury settles in water and interacts with microorganisms. Methyl mercury builds up or bio-accumulates as it is consumed in the food chain from fish to animals that eat fish. It is harmful to human’s vital organs and immune systems but is only a serious health concern to the very young. The harm to animals and birds can be reduced reproduction, slow growth, abnormal behavior or death.  Learn more about mercury in the environment or read numerous advisories on consuming fish with mercury.

So, why is the Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission (ORSANCO) which recommends water quality standards for the states “mad” enough to propose permitting more mercury in the Ohio River? In 2006, ORSANCO first amended language in its water quality standards to permit pollution discharges of bioaccumlative chemicals of concern (BCCs) including mercury into mixing zones. Permits using mixing zones calculate allowable pollutant levels based on larger volumes of water within a zone downstream of a discharge pipe. Many argue that mixing zones can’t provide adequate dilution to offset bioaccumulation. PPG Industries has been a beneficiary of the ORSANCO rule on mixing zones for BCCs. PPG’s Natrium, WV plant is one of four remaining in the United States that uses mercury in chlorine production. PPG’s mixing zone is within the Ohio River.

In recent years PPG has attempted to become compliant with West Virginia water quality standards that are guided by ORSANCO for the Ohio River and PPG claims it has reduced the use of mercury. Meanwhile, new coal burning power plants capture mercury in smokestacks and other toxins before they are released into the air we breathe or settle in our waterways. The captured toxins are placed in settling ponds, mixed with wastewater and discharged into waterways. The coal power industry wants ORSANCO to extend mixing zone variances for BCCs and permit greater mercury discharges into the Ohio River because economically feasible technology isn’t available to treat the mercury laden wastewater.

Can the madness be stopped? You can tell the mad hatter to protect the Ohio River and human health. ORSANCO will receive public comments on its proposal until September 3, 2010. A comment submission form is available at the Kentucky Waterway Alliance (KWA) web page. Kentucky is one of eight states served by ORSANCO. If your state borders the Ohio River or receives water from the Ohio River learn more about ORSANCO and voice your interests in a clean and healthy Ohio River.