PEC Responds to “Cowardly” Post-Gazette Editorial

June 21, 2019By: Pennsylvania Environmental Council
photo: Flickr user Navin75 (CC BY-SA 2.0)
PEC Blog

On June 19, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette published an editorial in which it called out both PEC and PEC President Davitt Woodwell, a Pennsylvania Commissioner on the Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission (ORSANCO), as “irresponsible and cowardly” and “disgracing ORSANCO’s rich legacy” based on a June 4 vote of the Commission. Needless to say, we disagree strongly with those misplaced assertions and ad hominem attacks.

In that editorial, The Post-Gazette also stated that they felt that Pennsylvanians deserved a “clear and concise answer as to why its commissioners . . . voted to make ORSANCO’s water quality standards voluntary.” This language grossly mischaracterizes the outcome of the board’s action, as we were eager to explain at a level of depth and detail commensurate with the complexity of the story, which the editorial entirely fails to convey. But when PEC tried to provide the PG with just such an explanation, based on the paper’s own guidelines, we were rebuffed. Instead, we were invited to submit our response in the form of a letter to the editor, not to exceed 300 words. “Sorry,” a staffer told us by email, “we don’t have space” for anything longer. We declined this invitation.

PEC takes protection of our Commonwealth’s waters seriously – public examination of these issues should do the same.

Therefore, we are providing you with our response, as well as links to pertinent information from ORSANCO, to let you decide for yourself. Continuing protection and enhancement of water quality in the Ohio River Watershed is critical for many reasons.  This vote was one way to ensure that we continue to reach for those goals.

As always, PEC is happy to participate in thoughtful discussions about difficult and often nuanced issues, allowing time and full consideration to understand what is really happening. We realize that not everyone shares that approach. PEC takes protection of our Commonwealth’s waters seriously – public examination of these issues should do the same.


Dear Editor:

Contrary to repeated reporting by The Post-Gazette and others, recent actions by the Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission (ORSANCO) did not weaken or make voluntary the protection of water quality in the Ohio River. Rather, amendments to the body’s Pollution Control Standards affirmed Pennsylvania’s additional water quality permit requirements and now require all mainstem states to prove that they are providing similar protections.

The media has uncritically repeated the assertion that board members “voted to make ORSANCO’s water quality standards voluntary.” This is simply false: the language in the proposal adopted this month is not voluntary. The standards remain intact, and all states are now on the hook to show how they will meet the level of protection the standards afford. For most states, including Pennsylvania, this will mean continuing to include the existing Pollution Control Standards in their permit processes.

Part of the actual language of the amendment, not directly referred to in any of the reporting, states that, “[t]he Commission, and each signatory state, have committed to implementation of discharge permit limitations that provide comparable use protection and achievement of the Compact goals as provided by these standards.”

As before, Pennsylvania must evaluate additive ORSANCO standards for inclusion in all NPDES permits that discharge to the Ohio River.  Pennsylvania cannot backtrack on those protections. Even if it could, the Ohio River would still be subject to the protections already required under the federal Clean Water Act (and, in Pennsylvania, the Clean Streams Law).

Where does the misconception that “ORSANCO voted in effect to de-fang itself” originate? It is true that, eight months ago, the commission considered a proposal that would have done away with the Pollution Control Standards entirely. That proposal underwent withering public comment (as it should have) but did not even come to a vote.  As they so clearly have, members of the public were right to speak out against the 2018 proposal, and they are right to ask questions about the Commission’s actions today and in the future. But media coverage and commentary have seemingly conflated ORSANCO’s most recent action with the previous proposal, when in fact they are entirely different.

Instead of gutting its own standards, ORSANCO has adopted a measure granting member states more autonomy in how they meet those standards – but the Commission itself has no less power to enforce them than it ever did. In fact, based on language offered by a Pennsylvania commissioner, ORSANCO is responsible for developing protocols to ensure that all states are meeting the protections afforded by the Pollution Control Standards. Our state’s delegation will continue working to ensure that these protocols are robust and hold all member states to their commitments to protect the Ohio River.

In reference to the two diametrically opposed proposals in front of ORSANCO over eight months, a Post-Gazette editorial alleges that “commissioners were shamed not into changing their minds, but into delaying their vote.”  This is simply wrong. The proposal in play last October would have removed the Pollution Control Standards. One hundred and eighty degrees from that, the amendments adopted this month reaffirm those standards and make it mandatory that states provide that level of protection for the Ohio’s designated uses.

Finally, lest anyone think that the Pollution Control Standards are all that ORSANCO is about, I encourage you to explore the Commission’s website and work regarding critical water quality issues including harmful algal blooms, mercury contamination, source water protection for five million water drinkers, and water quality monitoring.

In sum, ORSANCO continues to work for the protection and improvement of water quality in the Ohio River and its tributaries and does so with a dedicated staff performing great service to member states and the watershed. The vote on the Pollution Control Standards affirmed the Commission’s commitment to those goals and added a new layer of accountability on the mainstem states to show that they are protecting the uses of the Ohio River.

Davitt B. Woodwell
Commissioner, ORSANCO
President, Pennsylvania Environmental Council

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