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By Alex Ebert
Voluntary programs to curb the fertilizers feeding toxic algae blooms in Lake Erie have failed, and now Ohio’s Republican governor is pushing a bill to clamp down on farmers ahead of a lawsuit seeking federal standards instead.
Gov. John Kasich is floating proposed legislation that would empower the state Agriculture Department to impose farm-by-farm nutrient plans to minimize runoff into rivers that flow into Lake Erie. If the state’s Republican-led Legislature balks, Kasich will consider issuing new regulations through executive order instead, Ohio EPA spokeswoman Heidi Griesmer told Bloomberg Environment June 20.
Lake Erie experienced significant algal blooms in recent years, including in 2013 and 2014 when people got sick from drinking water in the Toledo, Ohio, area. Kasich’s plan comes as environmental groups are suing the federal Environmental Protection Agency to force it to impose federal standards to limit the amount of phosphorus washing into the lake. The governor’s push threatens to pit the Republican against the state’s farmers, who favor voluntary programs instead and argue they’re already heavily regulated.
But those programs haven’t worked, Ohio EPA Director Craig Butler said in June 19 testimony before a House committee. The state EPA doesn’t have the authority to regulate farms, which contributed 80 percent of the commercial fertilizer that flows into Lake Erie. Kasich’s proposed bill would direct the Agriculture Department to establish rules for “watersheds in distress.” That would require nutrient management plans that address fertilizer use by farms in Lake Erie’s watersheds.
That plan already faces opposition from farmers and some members of Kasich’s own party.
“Our position has been that there is a lot of good voluntary stuff happening and we want to see that continue,” said Christopher Henney, president and CEO of Ohio AgriBusiness Association, whose members supply and apply fertilizer for Ohio farms.
Nearly 2 million acres of Ohio farmland in the Western Lake Erie basin are already under the supervision of retailers who follow procedures to minimize runoff, Henney told Bloomberg Environment June 20. The industry also supported Ohio’s laws to limit application of fertilizer in some adverse weather conditions.
“We’re all concerned about what things would come down from the U.S. EPA or Ohio EPA or whoever,” he said. “We don’t understand where all these nutrients come from, and we also know that a big part of it is more frequent heavy rain events.”
Instead of more regulation, legislators are getting behind increased funding for voluntary projects that will help farmers reduce runoff. One bill, which passed a House committee unanimously June 20, would provide $20 million for voluntary programs.
Voluntary measures can reduce phosphorus runoff “even without new regulations, if we provide more support, more incentives for the agriculture community,” Sen. Randy Gardner (R), who sponsored similar legislation in the Senate, testified June 20.
“Whether you believe we should have more regulation and mandates or don’t, I would argue that in either scenario, additional funding and additional investment is necessary,” he said.
Despite the opposition, new requirements could come to Ohio farmers anyway if environmental advocates win a lawsuit to force the federal EPA to set standards known as total maximum daily loads (TMDL) for phosphorus washing into Lake Erie.
The Environmental Law & Policy Center, which brought the case in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Ohio, argues federal runoff standards are needed to clean up the lake. Those requirements could take many forms, Howard Learner, president of the Environmental Law & Policy Center, told Bloomberg Environment June 12.
“It can be a combination of prohibiting the spread of manure on frozen or wet fields; it can be a requirement that agricultural operations install filter strips, sometimes called buffer strips, that reduce runoff.”
While the group backs Kasich’s efforts, any executive action the governor might take could be just as easily undone by his successor in 2019. That’s why the Legislature or the the EPA needs to act, Leaerner said.
“We’re not going to criticize Gov. Kasich if he adopts executive orders. That’s in the right direction. But the actions have to be sufficient to solve the problem,” he said.
However, the state said federal standards are unnecessary because Ohio has already committed reducing phosphorus pollution in Lake Erie by 40 percent as part a pact other Great Lakes governments.
Imposing federal runoff standards wouldn’t be a silver bullet for algal blooms, Jack Irvin, senior director of state and national affairs for the Ohio Farm Bureau, said. Many other waterbodies in northern Ohio are already deemed to be impaired by the EPA. Nutrient limits are being written for them as well.
“We’re talking about 1 pound of phosphorus per acre which is the problem. That’s roughly a mason jar of fertilizer over a football field,” he said. ""This is a complex system, and it’s not going to be a quick turnaround.”
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