The River Runs Through Us

Cincinnati’s history and lore are linked to the Ohio River, but as the primary source of our public drinking water it’s literally inside most of us. How safe should we feel?
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ILLUSTRATION BY TOM CLOHOSY COLE

The next time you see a barge churning low in the broad, brown flow beneath our downtown bridges, consider the river. That water made Cincinnati. It carried millions of settlers and their belongings west. Thousands more, with less than nothing, crossed it toward freedom.

We’re proud to call the Ohio River’s curvy banks home, and they continue to enrich our region. The Ohio and its tributaries carry more than 180 million tons of freight each year, cool power plants, and feed industry and agriculture. The river drains a 205,000-square-mile watershed and supplies 5 million people with drinking water, including most Cincinnati residents. As local folk singer Jake Speed sings in his “Ohio River Blues,” “That Ohio River, she’s running right through me.”

We might be forgiven for taking our drinking water for granted at a time when, following the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, and droughts raging out west, lots of communities can’t. Drinking water supplies around the nation continue to be at risk of contamination from perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl (PFAs), “forever chemicals” shown to have negative health consequences. “Massive quantities of this stuff have been released into the Ohio River for decades,” says Taft, Stettinius and Hollister attorney Robert Bilott, whose book Exposure and the movie based on it starring Mark Ruffalo, Dark Waters, helped increase awareness of these contaminants.

Water users in the Ohio Valley enjoy an uneasy sort of security. While Cincinnati’s drinking water is some of the best in the nation according to the American Water Works Association, the river also carries 23 million pounds of chemicals, earning it the title of the nation’s most polluted river. River advocates consider that name unfair, considering the Ohio River’s overall volume, and worry the bad rap will lead to further neglect.

So how exactly does Cincinnati enjoy safe and healthy drinking water that’s sourced from a muddy, murky, often polluted river? The answers include federal legislation that changed how we treat our waters and creation of a Cincinnati-based partnership among eight states. And it has everything to do with the diligence of Greater Cincinnati Water Works (GCWW), working 24 hours a day and 365 days a year to protect every sip you take.


In the early evening of January 2, 1988, an Ashland Oil worker checking a 4-million-gallon tank near Pittsburgh heard a loud boom and turned to see the tank collapse. Diesel fuel surged over a containment dike, across a parking lot, and into a storm drain that emptied directly into the Monongahela River. More than 800,000 gallons started making their way downstream and into the Ohio River. Phones rang downriver, including in Cincinnati at an organization called ORSANCO, which stands for the Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission, where Source Water Protection and Emergency Response Manager Jerry Schulte was just a year into his job.

“By the time I reached the Pennsylvania border, 40 miles down from the spill, the fuel had been over or under four or five dams,” he says. “The temperature was about 5 degrees Fahrenheit, and the oil had emulsified in the water column so you could no longer see a sheen. You couldn’t see it, and you certainly couldn’t smell it.”

The spill stretched to cover 33 miles. Schulte’s job—and that of myriad responders with the U.S. EPA, state agencies, water utilities, and more—was to figure out where the oil was as it crept downstream toward the intakes of drinking water utilities. “We would advise them where the plume was and then facilitate communications to downstream utilities so they could develop treatment or shutdown procedures.”

The incident contaminated the drinking water of about a million residents of Ohio, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania and underscored the need for communications throughout the watershed. “A major part of the source water protection program is communicating with those upstream dischargers that there’s a drinking water utility right downstream from them,” Schulte says. “It was amazing to me when I started working here that so many of those industries had no idea, none, that there were drinking water intakes downstream.”

ORSANCO had been launched to address the pesky fact that river pollution ignores boundaries. But spills are only the tip of the iceberg in terms of day-to-day responsibilities. ORSANCO staffers sample the river at every lock and dam for chemicals, radioactives, and pathogens. They monitor bacterial levels, sample fish, and issue reports on whether the river is safe for recreation and whether fish are safe to eat. And they play a vital role in keeping the river’s many uses—including industries with permits to discharge pollutants and the water utilities that use it for drinking water—in close communication.

Cincinnati’s water treatment plant was impressive when built east of the city 100 years ago (above) and remains remarkably effective today.

PHOTOGRAPH FROM THE COLLECTION OF CINCINNATI & HAMILTON COUNTY PUBLIC LIBRARY

ORSANCO grew out of the Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce’s Stream Pollution Committee, begun in 1935 to do something about a river that had become an embarrassment and a health hazard. The committee’s work snowballed, gaining support from like-minded organizations and a federal government that smiled on regional solutions to infrastructure problems. In 1948, on the same day that President Truman signed America’s first comprehensive national pollution control legislation, the ORSANCO compact—an agreement among eight member states and the federal government—was signed.

In ORSANCO’s first two decades, the percent of sewage treated along the river rose from 1 percent to 99 percent; by 1965, 90 percent of the 1,705 industrial establishments along the river’s length complied with ORSANCO’s minimum industrial waste requirements. ORSANCO’s first chairman, Hudson Biery, head of public relations for the Cincinnati Street Railway who’d proposed the original committee, credited its ability to break through industries’ long-standing regulation resistance to the Chamber’s business community relationships.

When I speak with Schulte by phone, he’s watching a Cooper’s hawk stalk his bird feeder. Bad news, I remark, for the birds. “I feed all the birds,” he says. “It’s truly a no-holds-barred bird feeder.” His recent adventures included supporting a 274-mile canoe trip promoting the Ohio River Recreational Trail by following in his duck-hunting boat. After a 29-year career at ORSANCO, Schulte is now media coordinator for the Ohio River Recreational Trail, Paddlefest, and Ohio River Swim, which all aim to build public support for the river.

There’s a story, Schulte says, that when ORSANCO was first founded, its commissioners used their noses to assess water quality. They smelled jars from the upper and lower rivers. The upper river smelled of phenols, reflecting its heavy industrialization, he says; the lower river was more algal, because its banks were agricultural. Water quality monitoring has come a long way since, of course.

ORSANCO Executive Director Richard Harrison’s office looks over the old riverside neighborhood of California from its Kellogg Avenue headquarters next door to GCWW’s Richard Miller Treatment Plant. The neighborhood, like many along the river, has seen new developments of high-end homes sporting a river view.

When I visit him there, he greets me with a printout of the ORSANCO compact and a yellow highlighter. The agreement between the eight Ohio River states protects four uses of the river, he says, highlighting: maintain the waters of said basin in a satisfactory sanitary condition, available for safe and satisfactory use as public and industrial water supplies after reasonable treatment, suitable for recreational usage, capable of maintaining fish and other aquatic life, free from unsightly or malodorous nuisances due to floating solids or sludge deposits, and adaptable to such other uses as may be legitimate.

Maintaining those uses in balance takes tireless monitoring and analysis “so we can see how the river changes through time,” says Harrison. “We have decades of data, and we can go back and actually calculate how the river is doing.” I can’t help but think that, were Mark Twain still with us today, ORSANCO’s work would really ring the metrics-and technology-obsessed author’s bell.

As conditions on the river change, ORSANCO works to get out ahead of emerging threats, including harmful algae blooms that have infected hundreds of miles of the Ohio River twice in the last decade. And they’re engaged in a two-year monitoring project to discern the levels of PFAs. In 2018, despite outcry from environmentalists and advocates for fresh water protections—and motivated in part by commissioners sympathetic to industrial and energy interests—ORSANCO moved to make adherence to its pollution control standards no longer mandatory, instead providing “more flexibility” to the member states. The thinking was that ORSANCO’s criteria, which were often stricter than state and EPA standards, were redundant.

ORSANCO continues to track what’s stored and transported on the Ohio River and what ends up in the river. Organic compounds generated and transported by the fossil fuel industry remain a big part of what they look for. Legacy industries and mineral extraction near the river continue to be sources of heavy metals, including mercury and lead. But ORSANCO also works to stay ahead of emerging threats like the algae blooms, which seem to be exacerbated by fertilizers running into the river as well as by changing climate conditions.


Schulte’s Successor in Source Water Protection at ORSANCO, Sam Dinkins, has just returned from a river-length survey for a two-year PFA-monitoring project. He calls it a welcome excursion from dealing with a river of office paperwork when I speak with him and Schulte via Zoom.

ORSANCO receives 500 to 600 spill reports a year from the Coast Guard’s National Response Center, which is the designated federal point of contact for reporting all oil, chemical, radiological, biological, and etiological discharges. While that sounds bad, it’s actually not, Dinkins says, because most spills are minor, as little as a teaspoon, and show that industries on the whole are zealous about reporting. They can get cited for anything that produces a “visible sheen on the water,” Schulte says.

Unfortunately, major spills do happen. There was the unwanted Christmas present Louisville got in December 2017 when a barge unloading in Cincinnati broke in half, releasing 467,000 gallons of urea ammonium nitrate fertilizer into the Ohio River. The 2014 Elk River Spill occurred during a polar vortex, releasing 10,000 gallons of MCHM (a chemical used to treat coal) into the Elk, then the Kanawha, and then the Ohio.

During a major spill, agencies up and down the river begin sampling at dams and share information to calculate the time of arrival for material floating down the rivers. GCWW scrambles to discern the level of threat—calculating, if needed, the optimal times to close and reopen their water intakes until the threat passes or to increase their treatment regimen, which often includes adding powdered carbon to the water, Schulte says. That’s in addition to the state-of-the-art carbon filtration already in place.

How fast does the Ohio River move anyway? “It can range from 1/10th of a mile an hour to over 5 mph at flood stage,” says Schulte. “Under normal low-flow conditions, when it hasn’t rained a ton, it’s going to be under a mile per hour, which is pretty common in the summertime.”

CINCINNATI’S GRANULATED ACTIVATED CARBON FACILITY WAS BUILT IN THE 1990S AND REMAINS STATE-OF-THE-ART TECHNOLOGY. IT’S LIKE A GIANT BRITA FILTER.

While ORSANCO might be seen as the nervous system connecting the river and its users, GCWW is Cincinnati’s circulatory system that pumps, filters, and distributes clean water. Along with its sister utility across the river, Northern Kentucky Water District, GCWW has evolved and adapted over time. Those developments are visible in the stages through which the water passes at the Richard Miller Water Treatment Plant, where I meet GCWW Assistant Superintendent Bruce Whitteberry and Source Water Protection Manager Richard Stuck. The trained hydrogeologists take me on a tour.

Water has been pumped from the Ohio River since 1906 at the Old River Pump Station, behind the plant, just above where the Little Miami River empties into the Ohio. The inside of this marvel of engineering could be the setting of a Jules Verne novel. Four 104-foot-tall steam engines (some of the largest ever built) dominate the massive cylindrical chamber dug deep into the ground. Those engines surround a vertical blue-painted iron pipe descending hundreds of feet through a maze of machinery, I-beams, and catwalks to the floor below. Electric pumps that replaced the steam engines in the 1960s thrum throughout the chamber.

Greater Cincinnati Waterworks supplies 88 percent of area residents with treated Ohio River water.

PHOTOGRAPH BY JEREMY KRAMER

You can see the red-roofed pump station if you look east as you cross the I-275 bridge near Coney Island. It’s paired with two stone structures that stand in the river just off the Kentucky bank. These are old water intakes for Cincinnati and Kentucky, situated where the pool of the river was reliably deepest. This was before the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers installed navigation locks and dams along the Ohio River, creating “pools” at more regular levels, essential for both transportation and drinking water security.

We take a caged elevator to the pump station floor, which is five and a half feet below the bottom of the river. Another 150 feet below where we stand is a seven-foot-wide brick-lined tunnel mined through the river’s bedrock, Whitteberry says.

In the late 1800s, Cincinnatians risked their health or worse drinking river water. Cholera and other diseases flourished where sewage mixed with just about everything else. But after adapting a revolutionary new “European” technology in Eden Park to deal with the Ohio River’s unique muddiness, the water works introduced the first line of defense against waterborne pathogens: rapid sand filtration.

After undergoing chemical and physical treatments to make suspended particles clot, the river water runs through stages to remove sediments. It’s forced over inclined plates and settles in a pair of 330-million-gallon basins in the golf course above the plant. These reservoirs also serve as emergency storage—enough, says Whitteberry, to allow GCWW to close its river intakes for up to three days, depending on usage and time of year.

We enter the rapid sand filtration building, a vast waffle of 47 massive concrete filter basins. Each contains several feet of sand over a bed of gravel and can process 6 million gallons a day. The sand is bioactive, meaning microorganisms in it help eat organic matter and pollutants. While it might sound like simple technology, implementation of rapid sand filtration was revolutionary in its day and resulted in a steep decline in cholera and typhoid. But it’s the next stage of treatment, when carbon fights carbon, where the real action happens.

In February 1977, a corroded storage tank in “Chemical Valley” (as the area around the Kanawha River near Charleston, West Virginia, is called) released a 70-ton slug of carcinogenic carbon tetrachloride. “At that time, we didn’t have the capability to monitor that kind of thing,” says Whitteberry. “The way we found out about it was EPA detected it in the tap water.”

The incident served as a wake-up call for additional protections against industrial spills that ultimately included the next stage of treatment: granulated activated carbon (GAC). Cincinnati’s GAC facility was built in the 1990s and remains state-of-the-art technology. Carbon granules are super-heated to make them porous, multiplying their surface area. A single cup of GAC has the surface area of about 25 football fields (1.3 million square feet). As water passes through the granules, impurities bind to the carbon.

DIAGRAM USED WITH PERMISSION, COURTESY GREATER CINCINNATI WATER WORKS

The filters’ remarkable effectiveness allows GCWW to use less chlorine to treat the water, which lowers the nasty byproducts created when chlorine reacts with organic matter. “When you say granulated activated carbon, the place where my mind goes is ‘giant Brita filter,’ ” I say to Whitteberry. “I actually use that as an analogy,” he replies. “It sort of is.”

Except these 12 carbon filters are each 11.5 feet thick, and water takes between 10 and 20 minutes to pass through. It’s particularly effective against organic compounds, including carbon-based fossil fuels and their many byproducts. It’s also effective against PFAs, Whitteberry says, especially when you use as much carbon as they do.

Water leaving GAC filtration exceeds all federal water quality standards, Whitteberry says, but GCWW has invested in ultraviolet light as further treatment. We walk to a stand-alone plant where eight thick robin’s-egg-blue pipes carry water through collars fitted with high intensity bulbs, which bombard the water with ultraviolet light to neutralize any remaining pathogens, such as cryptosporidium. The only sound is the faint hiss of the facility’s HVAC.

You wouldn’t know that millions of gallons are passing through the room, on to final treatments to adjust pH to fight pipe corrosion and, after chlorine and fluoride additives, to a reservoir that gravity-feeds the riverside pump station by St. Rose’s Church on Riverside drive. From there, 43 billion gallons of clean water travel along 3,100 miles of main pipes each year to businesses and homes.

At least that’s the case for 88 percent of Cincinnati water customers. The other 12 percent are served water extracted and treated from the Great Miami Buried Aquifer in the northern suburbs.


Water treatment science, it appears, has come a long way. Technology, regulations, and monitoring all connect to safeguard the supply. But what happens when the agencies charged with protecting us are unaware of a nasty problem? That’s what Robert Bilott discovered about DuPont’s deliberate cover-up of PFA dumping and contamination from its chemical plant on the Ohio River in West Virginia.

Robert Bilott

Photograph courtesy Taft Law

I reach Bilott by phone just a couple of weeks after PFAs have again made New York Times headlines. “How Chemical Companies Avoid Paying for Pollution” details DuPont’s efforts to minimize liability by spinning its chemical business line off into other companies. Two days earlier another story detailed the U.S. EPA’s plan to create a formal “roadmap” for addressing PFAs.

“My letter to the EPA, asking them to do that, was sent March 6, 2001,” Bilott says. “So we’re just now hearing the agency say We’re going to do it. It still hasn’t been done. That’s very frustrating.”

For too long after Bilott learned what DuPont’s own scientists knew about the human toxicity presented by PFAs, residents near the plant continued to drink tainted water. Setting enforceable standards for “new” chemicals—PFAs have been used for decades—lags. As of 2016, Bilott says, the EPA recommended that levels of PFAs in water not exceed 70 parts per trillion gallons but had yet to publish an enforceable federal number for industrial use.

PFA levels are exceedingly low in the river at Cincinnati, Whitteberry says, thanks to GCWW’s GAC filtration system. Northern Kentucky installed similar equipment in 2013. “What a lot of folks are looking at right now is whether there’s a way we can fix the regulation process,” Bilott says. “Can we avoid another situation like this West Virginia case again where you have massive quantities of an extremely toxic material being emitted for decades and decades, getting into our river, getting into our drinking water supplies?” In suing and prosecuting DuPont, he says, “we saw instances where folks who’d been closely affiliated with the people being regulated ended up running the agencies that were supposed to be regulating their former employers.”

And there’s the overarching colossus of information involved, an avalanche of datapoints, connections, causes, and effects. Bilott’s success lay in his ability to work through millions of pages of documents and studies and to do his own studies. He’s still hard at work, scanning the river of information surrounding PFAs. “It’s difficult to do, but it’s necessary,” he says. “You’ve got to keep up to speed on what’s happening on all these different fronts at the same time: the regulatory side, the scientific publication side, the legal side as things move through the courts—not just in different states or at the federal level but in different countries now. It enables you to help focus things for real, meaningful change. And we’re seeing that happen at the legislative and federal levels. So things can be changed.”

With PFAs and other pollutants, we rely on specialists and professionals to collect and process information and connect the dots that impact our health. It helps to have concerned citizens do the same in a world where, despite progress on pollution, the conditions that necessitated ORSANCO’s creation repeat: Industries evolve and chafe at the yoke of environmental regulations.

That’s on display in the tug of war over the Obama Administration’s 2015 Clean Water Rule, which extended federal protections to so-called “ephemeral” waters— seasonal, temporary bodies not directly connected to navigable waterways, but hydrologically and biologically essential nonetheless. You might not be able to kayak them, but these are the headwaters of every watershed, mitigating or contributing to pollution and, crucially, reducing the runoff we see exacerbated by global warming.

President Trump undid those protections with a stroke of pen. Now, under the Biden Administration, the federal government is working toward a “durable” definition of the “Waters of the United States” to ensure “clean and safe water in all communities—supporting human health, animal habitat, agriculture, watersheds, flood management, local economies, and industry.”

In Ohio, a bill is under consideration that would limit the state EPA’s ability to regulate ephemeral streams, allowing freer rein to developers who see additional protections as regulatory overreach. The science clearly shows that decimating ephemeral streams and other seasonal bodies will drastically impact the watershed and drinking water supply. So we’re back to that original problem that ORSANCO was created to solve, the “boundary thwarting” nature of water pollution and getting all of the water’s users to do the right thing.

There’s a common perception that you’re either pro-industry, pro-jobs, and pro-economy or you’re a tree-hugging environmentalist. But is regulating water pollution really the profit- and job-killer the industrial and commercial sectors make it out to be?

“With PFAs, what we’ve seen is that regulations can actually drive innovation in new products and new jobs,” says Bilott. “When it was discovered that these chemicals were used in coatings for microwave popcorn bags, Denmark actually banned microwave popcorn bags, and there was outcry that it was going to kill that product and kill those jobs.” Within months, though, someone came up with a process to make the bag without PFAs, and microwave popcorn was back on store shelves.

Everything flows, the Greek philosopher Heraclites is said to have said. He also said that we can’t step in the same river twice—meaning the river is ever changing, and so are we.

“The history of this river is the history of America,” said Eric Rotsinger, a historian personifying Mark Twain during the Clermont County Park District’s inaugural Steamboat Days celebration in 2018. Twain’s sayings are, like those of Heraclites, subject to interpretation and debate, but they speak the truth. As does this new saying: The future of this river is the future of us all.

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