Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Here's how contaminants are detected along the 981-mile Ohio River

Brian Webb

Local officials say they're completely confident that Cincinnati's drinking water is safe despite low-levels of contamination upstream in the Ohio River.

Key takeaways:

  • There are no detectable chemicals in this part of the Ohio River, although small amounts were detected upriver.
  • Local water utilities briefly closed their intakes anyway, relying on reserve water while still testing.
  • The intakes are back open and officials say water has been safe to drink the entire time.

Greater Cincinnati Water Works outlined existing testing and treatment procedures for City Council's Climate, Environment and Infrastructure Committee in a special meeting Tuesday morning.

Interim Director Verna Arnette says the city's Organics Detection System monitoring point is part of a network all along the Ohio River.

"We run samples every two hours all the time, regardless of this incident or not," Arnette said.

There are 17 systems along the Ohio River's 981-mile length.

RELATED: Cincinnati, Northern Kentucky reopen water intakes after closures

"It's unique in the nation," Arnette said. "There's no other river system that has this kind of contaminant detection."

In other words, GCWW testing would have caught the contamination even if they didn't step up testing when the train derailment in East Palestine happened earlier this month.

"And if anything else gets into the water, we're confident that monitoring system will give us an early warning," said Water Quality Superintendent Jeff Swertfeger. "And we'll be able to take similar precautions for those future threats from there."

Arnette says the local response to this derailment shows how well-prepared the region is for situations like this.

"I think it highlights the importance of these systems and making sure that we continue to replace them when they're old ... and making sure that we have the latest and greatest detection equipment," she said.

Council members say they have full confidence in GCWW and other local partners and feel no trepidation about drinking Cincinnati tap water themselves.

RELATED: The EPA steps in to take over the East Palestine train derailment cleanup

Here are answers to some of the questions GCWW has been addressing over the past few weeks.

How did contaminants get into the Ohio River?

On Feb. 3, a train containing several cars with hazardous materials derailed near East Palestine, Ohio (near the Pennsylvania border).

Although East Palestine isn't very close to the Ohio River, it is part of the large Ohio River watershed.

"Our watershed covers about 77,000 square miles," Swertfeger said. "So most of Ohio, Kentucky, West Virginia, even getting into New York and Virginia itself — things that happen in those states eventually happened to us."

A map of the Ohio River Watershed created using USGS data.
Karl Musser
Wikimedia Commons
A map of the Ohio River Watershed created using USGS data.

It's important to note that doesn't mean drinking water in that entire area could be affected. The Associated Press investigated the claim going around on social media that anyone in the yellow area of the above map should be concerned about the safety of their drinking water.

"The map shows the region of land whose surface water drains into the Ohio River, not the region that gets its drinking water from the river," AP reported. "Many counties in the map get their drinking water from other sources, experts said."

RELATED: 'Everybody is letting us down': East Palestine, residents demand answers after train derailment

It takes time for water to move down river. Swertfeger says chemicals were first detected in the Ohio River Feb. 6, three days after the derailment.

It took a little over two weeks for that water to reach Cincinnati.

What chemicals were detected and where?

Sampling of the Ohio River detected small amounts of a compound used in fragrances and flavorings called 2-Ethyl-1-hexaynol.

No other chemicals that could be associated with the derailment have been detected locally, though some monitoring much farther up river by the Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission detected small amounts of butyl acrylate, a chemical used in adhesives, in the water. No local samples have detected that chemical.

The highest concentration of butyl acrylate reported has been four parts per billion. The EPA determines 560 parts per billion would be harmful.

How do officials know if the Ohio River is contaminated?

The Organics Detection System includes water utilities along the Ohio River to detect low levels of certain organic compounds at water intakes (where river water goes into utility storage tanks) and some tributaries (where some water flows into the river from creeks or other rivers).

There are 17 gas chromatographs (GCs) on the Ohio, Allegheny, Monongahela, Kanawha and Elk rivers.

Greater Cincinnati Water Works posted this video about testing to their social media accounts (story continues after):

It's also required for certain spills or other events to be reported, giving officials notice that more frequent testing might be a good idea.

"We get notification of any reported spill upstream of us," Arnette said. "And then anything, if it hasn't been reported to us, we still will get notice notification if one of our partners detects [something]."

GCWW has been publishing the test results for specific chemicals online.

How do utilities respond to contamination?

Arnette says the first reaction is always to shut down the intake, meaning temporarily stop collecting water from the Ohio River.

"And then our second line of defense is our treatment processes, which can remove a lot of these chemicals to non detection," she said.

The chemicals initially detected in the Ohio River upstream can be treated out of the water to make it safe to drink. In this case, that wasn't necessary; by the time that water reached this area, there was no longer any detectable level of a dangerous chemical.

It's not common to shut down the river intake, but it's not rare either.

RELATED: Norfolk Southern submits remediation plan for derailment site in East Palestine

"About once a year or so we shut down our intakes because either something's detected, or maybe we have a spill, or maybe let's say we have a boat sinking a little bit upstream of us," Swertfeger said. "Our first reaction is always to shut down, assess the situation, figure out if it's any threat, and then figure out when it's safe to reopen."

Swertfeger says all drinking water is filtered through charcoal anyway, and during emergencies they can add charcoal earlier in the treatment process.

How much water does GCWW hold in reserve?

The Ohio River Intake for GCWW was shut off for about 18 hours, meaning the utility had to use reserves to keep water flowing.

Arnette says the utility can only hold a certain amount of water volume at a time, due to regulation about water age.

How long that volume lasts can depend on the time of year and how much water people are using.

"So fortunately, this time of the year, people are not using a lot of water because they're not watering [gardens and lawns] and things like that," she said.

GCWW has a two- to three-day supply of water in reserve. Since some of that was used during the recent intake shutoff, the reserve is being replenished now.

Local Government Reporter with a particular focus on Cincinnati; experienced journalist in public radio and television throughout the Midwest. Enthusiastic about: civic engagement, public libraries, and urban planning.