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The Ohio River, which supplies drinking water to millions of people, is endangered

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The Ohio River supplies drinking water to millions of people between Pennsylvania and Illinois. It's also one of the most endangered rivers in the country, according to a new report from the conservation nonprofit American Rivers. NPR's Seyma Bayram joins us now to discuss why. Hey, Seyma.

SEYMA BAYRAM, BYLINE: Hi, Ailsa.

CHANG: So I understand that you recently visited the Ohio River where it starts in Pittsburgh. What did you see there?

BAYRAM: So I had this beautiful view from this overlook in Pittsburgh where you can actually see the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers come together to form the Ohio River. There are barges going up and down the river, a reminder that this nearly thousand-mile long river is still a main way to transport goods. You know, it's important to remember the Ohio River gave life to Pittsburgh's coal, petroleum and steel industries, which sustained the local economy, but also polluted the waterways.

I met this woman, Judy Baumgartner. She's a Pittsburgh native. She remembers seeing big pipes from the plants going into the river and the smell.

JUDY BAUMGARTNER: It had a sweet, different smell. It wasn't fresh water. You know, you just got used to it.

BAYRAM: And many people I talked to in Pittsburgh, including Baumgartner, assumed that the river was in good shape.

BAUMGARTNER: To me, the river looks a lot more healthy now than it did back then.

BAYRAM: The Ohio River is much healthier than it was back then, but it still faces some challenges.

CHANG: OK. Well, let's talk about those challenges. Like, what are some of the biggest threats to the Ohio River now?

BAYRAM: So, Ailsa, it comes down to a few things. One - you have legacy pollution left over from these old industries. The toxins they dumped, like mercury, still impact fish and other wildlife. And then, two - you have these new industries that have moved into the Ohio River Basin. These companies, they have permits to release a certain amount of chemicals into the water, but environmental groups say there is not enough enforcement when companies exceed those permitted amounts. And three - climate change, of course, is another factor because it leads to more frequent and heavy rainfall. That overwhelms the stormwater and sewer system in Pittsburgh. And so when it rains a lot, sewage overflows and seeps into the Ohio River, creating these toxic algae blooms.

CHANG: Well, of course, as well, the Ohio River was in the news in February when a train carrying hazardous chemicals derailed in East Palestine, which I understand is only - what? - 16 miles from the Ohio River. How did that derailment impact the river, specifically?

BAYRAM: So you may have heard of this toxic chemical, butyl acrylate. It was released into nearby streams after the East Palestine derailment. What's important to remember is that those tributaries flow directly into the Ohio River, so that chemical did end up in the river. And companies transport hazardous materials on this waterway all the time, either in barges or on nearby freight trains. So if an accident happens, that can have huge consequences on the river.

CHANG: Yeah. Well, what's being done now to help clean up and protect the river?

BAYRAM: So there's a group of stakeholders drafting a plan right now to submit to Congress this year that could help transform the Ohio River Basin into a federally protected water system. Meanwhile, environmental groups, like Three Rivers Waterkeeper, want polluting industries to be held accountable.

(SOUNDBITE OF ENGINE RUNNING)

BAYRAM: I went out on the Ohio River with the organization's Evan Clark. He explained they do regular patrols for microplastics and test water quality.

EVAN CLARK: It's a source of food and this source of abundant and relatively rare on the global scale of fresh water. It just deserves a lot of protection and love.

BAYRAM: Fresh water is where we get our drinking water from, and it's the water we use to grow crops, but only 2.5% of the Earth's water is fresh water. And as climate change and pollution threaten water supplies, experts say it's critical that we find ways to protect it.

CHANG: That is NPR's Seyma Bayram. Thank you so much, Seyma.

BAYRAM: Thank you, Ailsa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Seyma Bayram
Seyma Bayram is the 2022-2023 Reflect America Fellow at NPR.