Literature Review on Pollution in the Ohio River Valley

The rise and growth of industry in the Midwest has led to the continuous contamination and pollution of the Ohio River Basin over the last several decades. According to Toxic Release Inventory Data from the Environmental Protection Agency, the Ohio river has been the most polluted river in the U.S. for seven straight years. The accumulation of toxic waste in the river has resulted in numerous problems, such as the contamination of fish tissue, toxic algae blooms, and the spread of certain organic compounds that increase the risk of cancer (Hopey 2017). As found by numerous studies conducted in the last several decades, the consequences of toxic waste discharges by industries have a directly affected the health of the Ohio River. There is therefore an immediate need for stronger controls for discharge of pollutants such as mercury, sulfates, nitrates and PCB’s. In this paper, we review literature on the pollution of the Ohio River Basin and evaluate the key findings and discrepancies in the studies conducted.

One major consequence of pollution in the area has been the contamination of the river’s fish population. In 2009, Gundersen and other scientists published research on paddlefish populations in the Ohio River (Gundersen 2009). The scientists collected fifty paddlefish from two sites in the Ohio River and one site in the Cumberland River and tested the fish for PCB and chlordane concentrations. They determined that PCB and chlordane concentrations were significantly higher in Ohio River paddlefish than in Cumberland River paddlefish. High concentrations of harmful chemicals in fish tissue have caused a decline in their populations, as well as fish consumption advisories along the Ohio River.

A source of pollution detrimental to aquatic life in the area was the increased production of biofuels in the early 2000s, as found by Demissie, Eugene, and May (2017). These researchers used the Soil Water Assessment tool to assess impacts of biofuel production on soil moisture content and nutrient loading. They discovered that sediment and phosphorus loading increased by 40-90% in the areas studied. Demissie’s research was enriched by Robert Miltner, who analyzed eutrophication endpoints for large rivers in Ohio (Miltner 2010). Miltner found that phosphorus concentrations averaged lower at sites showing less overt signs of enrichment, suggesting 130 micrograms/liter as a management target for over enriched waters (Miltner 2010). This study was corroborated by the findings of Wenli and Tong, who modeled the relationship between land use and surface water quality. Wenli and Tong found that there is a significant relationship between land use and water quality, especially for nitrogen and phosphorus.

Tennant and Vicory summarized the main concerns resulting from water pollution in their research on the ORSANCO toxic substances control program for the Ohio River. The authors described findings of an interstate agency that works to administer a state compact calling for the abatement of water pollution in the Ohio Valley. The agency found that water pollution was the “direct cause of contamination of fish tissue by PCB’s, concentrations of metals exceeding aquatic life criteria, and levels of organic compounds that exceed criteria established to prevent one additional cancer per million of the population (Tennant 1992).

However, even though ORANSCO published these findings, it has not satisfied the demands of certain environmental groups. A USA Today article published by James Bruggers outlined public discontent with ORANSCO actions.  According to the article, industries discharged 24,180,821 pounds of waste into the Ohio River in 2013, and “ORANSCO should be doing more to limit these pollutants” (Bruggers 2015). This article is supported by evidence from Don Hopey’s articles in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and Kara Holsopple’s article in the Allegheny Front. According to Hopey’s article “Region’s Rivers Are Some of the Nation’s Most Polluted”, the Ohio River is over twice as polluted as the Mississippi. Hopey’s article “Environmental Groups Urge Tougher Rules Enforcement on Clairton Coke Works” found Coke Works to be the largest polluter in Pennsylvania and claimed that Coke’s refusal to abate their pollution was an operational strategy. Hollsopple wrote that the PCB dioxins and mercury discharged by Steel Mills have built up in the Ohio River for decades and have contaminated the food supply. However, she cited a recent ORANSCO report that suggested relaxing rules for emissions of mercury and other pollutants, citing the “large volume in the river”. Hiroko Tabuchi addressed an additional concern for the Ohio River in a New York Times article that outlined impacts of increased risks of floods caused by global warming. These floods could cause accidents in the 2,500 chemical-handling sites located in flood prone areas (Tabuchi 2018).

The literature on pollution in the Ohio River Basin indicates that the pollution has disrupted aquatic life and caused some problems for people living in the area. Nitrates, phosphates, PCB’s, and mercury discharges were found to be the most harmful pollutants in the river. The literature also shows discontent with ORANSCO, as industries such as Coke Works have succeeded in avoiding regulations for the last several years.  However, research on the topic is limited by the lack of cost benefit analysis regarding pollutants such as mercury and nitrates. Further research could focus on the economic costs of failing to regulate mercury emissions, as mercury-rich water could significantly escalate filtration costs. Nevertheless, the scientific consensus on the deleterious effects of various pollutants in the Ohio River, coupled with ORANSCO’s inability to regulate polluters indicate that there is a dire need for a more stringent enforcement of the Clean Water Act in the form of clear deadlines and penalties for the largest polluters in the Ohio River Valley.





Bruggers, James “Ohio River Again Tops List for Industrial Pollution.” USA Today, March 14, 2015. Accessed February 9, 2018.

Demissie, Yonas, Eugene Yan, and May Wu. “Hydrologic and Water Quality Impacts of Biofuel Feedstock Production in the Ohio River Basin.” GCB Bioenergy 9, no. 12 (December 2017): 1736–50.

Gundersen, Deke T., Ruthellen Miller, Amy Mischler, Krista Elpers, Steve D. Mims, Jody G. Millar, and Vicki Blazer. 2009. “Biomarker response and health of polychlorinated biphenyl‐and chlordane‐contaminated paddlefish from the Ohio River Basin, USA.” Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry 19, no. 9. November 2, 2009.

Holsopple, Kara. “What You Need to Know About ‘Legacy Pollution’ in the Ohio River.” The Allegheny Front, December 2, 2016.


Hopey, Don. “Environmental Groups Urge Tougher Rules Enforcement on Clairton Coke Works.” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, November 1, 2017. Accessed February 9, 2018.


Hopey, Don “Region’s Rivers Are Some of Nation’s Most Polluted.” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. March 23, 2012. Accessed February 9, 2018.

Miltner, Robert J. “Eutrophication Endpoints for Large Rivers in Ohio, USA.” Environmental Monitoring and Assessment : An International Journal Devoted to Progress in the Use of Monitoring Data in Assessing Environmental Risks to Man and the Environment 190, no. 2 (201802): 1–17 January 2018.


Tabuchi, Hiroko. “Floods Are Getting Worse, and 2,500 Chemical Sites Lie in the Water’s Path.” The New York Times, February 6, 2018.

Tennant, P. A., C. G. Norman, and A. H. Vicory. “The Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission’s Toxic Substances Control Program for the Ohio River.” Water Science and Technology; London 26, no. 7–8 (October 1992): 1779–88.

Tong, Susanna T.y., and Wenli Chen. “Modeling the relationship between land use and surface water quality.” Journal of Environmental Management 66, no. 4 (December 2002): 377-93. Accessed March 1, 2018. doi:10.1006/jema.2002.0593.



Honor Code:    On my honor I have neither given nor received unauthorized information regarding this work, I have followed and will continue to observe all regulations regarding it, and I am unaware of any violation of the Honor Code by others.

About Artem Khrapko

I am an economics major at Davidson College and have an interest in pursuing environmental policy research and law.

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