How many pounds of toxic substances are dumped into the Ohio River Basin?
In 2015, the EPA’s Toxic’s Release Inventory (TRI) reported that 23 million pounds of toxic chemicals were released into the watershed.1 In 2020, TRI reported again, raising the number to 40,821,068 pounds released.2 TRI listed chemicals are those that have been studied and that cause: cancer or other chronic human health effects, significant adverse acute human health effects, and/or significant adverse environmental effects. There are 770 listed chemicals in the inventory.3 The total releases are “reported”, but this is an undercount of the actual releases. Here are reasons why toxic substances may go unreported:

  • Some industries, such as oil and gas extraction, are exempt from reporting;
  • Some chemicals have not been added to the list of reportable chemicals such as the majority of PFAS chemicals (over 4,500 chemicals);
  • Releases from facilities with fewer than 10 employees;
  • Other releases that fall under exemptions in existing law.

1 Ohio River Discharges Summary Report, Ohio River Valley Sanitation Commission, February 23, 2015
2 Wasting our Waterways, Environment America, September 28, 2022
3 What is the Toxics Release Inventory, US Environmental Protection Agency
Additional Sources:
Industry dumped more toxic pollution into the Ohio River than any other U.S. watershed in 2020, Louisville Public Media, October 4, 2022
We Mapped the Toxic Wastewater Discharges Along the Ohio River. Here’s What We Learned.Allegheny Front, January 2020

How many people drink water from the Ohio River?
The Ohio River is a drinking water source for over five million people.

How big is the Ohio River Watershed Ecosystem?
The Ohio River Watershed includes 30 million people across 14 states and includes roughly 60
Congressional Districts.

Our Ohio River Watershed is doing well, right?
The 2017 report, National Water Quality Inventory: Report to Congress, from the US EPA indicates that the Ohio River Watershed is one of the most polluted and stressed in the country. In 2020, there were still over 40,000 active National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System [NPDES] permits on the Ohio River alone and many of these permit holders regularly discharge more than their permits legally allow. For context, the river is about 1000 miles in length which means that there are nearly 40 discharge points per mile.

Didn’t American Rivers just say that the Ohio River is the second most endangered? That will help bring money to clean it up, right?
American Rivers did designate the river as endangered and you can read a press release from the Ohio River Basin Alliance about this. What is not being acknowledged is that even if more money is made available to these organizations for the work they do, the permitting processes remain unchanged. So while they may be studying one part of the river, agency discharge permits may be issued at the same time. This whack-a-mole process has been repeating itself for decades and the impacts to the river continue.

But, there’s a lot of water in the river, right? Doesn’t all this pollution just get diluted?
Yes and no. What we actually end up with is river water that contains a soup of any mixture of over 700 chemicals in various parts per million concentrations. No one actually knows the exposure mixture a person might be exposed to. What we do know, is that certain chemicals can accumulate in our bodies, such as PFAS or mercury, and that a person, or wildlife, or fish we eat, can suffer health consequences as a result. Further, our water filtration systems have to continually test for and manage pollutants in the public water supply. Cincinnati for example, runs an Organics Detection System which tests for specific contaminants every 2 hours day and night. Activated carbon filtration was brought online in 1992 as a direct result of the PFAS contamination. These added pressures cost our communities, that’s us, money and may reduce to “acceptable exposure levels”, but not fully remove, pollutants in our drinking water. Check out what’s in your water by zip code.

What are the Rights of Nature?
Environmental degradation is advancing around the world. The United Nations has warned that we are heading toward “major planetary catastrophe.” For this reason, there is a growing recognition that we must fundamentally change the relationship between humankind and nature. Making this fundamental shift means acknowledging our dependence on nature and respecting our need to live in harmony with the natural world. It means securing the highest legal protection and the highest societal value for nature through the recognition of nature’s rights and associated human rights.

Does Rights of Nature Mean ‘Personhood’?

One common misconception – including within elements of the Rights of Nature movement – is that organizers are advancing legal personhood for ecosystems. The truth is more complex. Read this conversation with The Guardian.

Where did Rights of Nature come from? How long has it existed?
Rights of Nature is a concept and worldview deeply rooted in traditional indigenous knowledge, culture and practice around the world. The idea made its way into Western law and philosophy starting in the 1970s when the Southern California Law Review published law professor Christopher Stone’s seminal article, “Should trees have standing – toward legal rights for natural objects.” Stone described how under the existing structure of law, nature was considered right-less, having no legally recognized rights to defend and enforce.

Why should we move toward Community Rights?
Community Rights work proposes a paradigm shift. It moves away from coercive top-down forms of government and unsustainable practices that harm communities and towards protective forms of local self-government in line with higher-level change to the purpose of the law. Through Community Rights we advocate for empowering residents to become decision makers while adding a layer of protection for people’s most basic rights and the rights of ecosystems. This work challenges the way state governments interfere in local democracy on behalf of corporate interests and the power of corporations to intimidate local communities. We don’t just have a pollution problem, we have a democracy problem. We live under a system of laws that doesn’t care what we want as a community.

Why do we need Community Rights of Nature? Our elected officials and government agencies already do that for us, right?
Actually, a handful of legal doctrines make it illegal for communities to govern on important issues that effect them like fracking infrastructure and waste, factory farms, living wages for workers, immigration, predatory lending, large-scale centralized energy projects, election procedures and financing, community development, and commercial water extraction—to name a few.

While many people work hard to create sustainable, healthy communities, these legal doctrines keep us “boxed in” by routinely restricting local law-making. We are told by those who champion these doctrines that “we’re beyond our authority,” or “it’s a state issue, not a local issue.” Here are some examples and you can read more about them here:

  • State Preemption and Dillon’s Rule: The state legislature enacts law that removes authority from the community to govern or pass a local law on a particular issue.
  • Nature as Property: Nature is considered mere property under the law. Anyone with a title to property has the legal right to harm it. A permit from the state legalizes harm. It “permits” destruction to ecosystems and harm to the community.
  • Corporate Privilege: Often referred to as “corporate rights” and “personhood,” it means that corporations claim “rights” to protections of free speech (1st Amendment), protections from search and seizure (4th Amendment), due process and lost future profits (5th Amendment), and equal protection (14th Amendment).
  • Regulatory Fallacy: By their very definition, regulatory agencies regulate the amount of harm that takes place with the associated activity.
  • Our Complicity: Divested of original outrage, society is calloused over with a kind of benign complicity, looking past every environmental crime through a haze of justifications. Why do we perceive crimes forgivable and lives dispensable when it comes to crimes against people, communities, and the natural environments we depend upon for health and wellbeing?