Ohio Toxic Algae Fight Not Tough Enough on Farmers: Activists

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By Christopher Brown

Oct. 20 — Toledo, Ohio, has improved its ability to detect and respond to toxic algae after a harmful algal bloom in 2014 forced the city to shut off its water supply, city officials and environmental activists said, but efforts to tackle what some say is the root of the problem—runoff from agriculture—remain elusive.

Even a state plan to help reduce phosphorous in Lake Erie by 40 percent by 2025, which is expected to be released by the end of October, lacks the kind of enforcement provisions that would indicate that regulators are serious about confronting the problem, activists told Bloomberg BNA.

Farm advocates counter that they are doing their part to address the problem but that all sources of nutrient pollution, the primary catalyst for algae growth, need to be taken into account, including leaky sewer systems. They also cautioned against regulations with uncertain benefits that could interfere with their ability to produce food.

Toledo officials were compelled to issue a do-not-drink advisory in August 2014 to 500,000 residents after testing at a city water treatment plant found unsafe levels of microcystin, a blue-green algae toxin that can cause gastrointestinal distress, liver damage, and, at high concentrations, death. Gov. John Kasich (R) subsequently declared a state of emergency for the city and called out the National Guard to deliver drinking water to the area.

The ban on drinking tap water was lifted two days after it was issued, setting off a scramble among officials in Toledo and in Columbus, the state capital, to assess the problem and prevent it from happening again.

Toledo Infrastructure

Prior to the 2014 event that drew national and international attention, Toledo had begun developing a 20-year master plan to improve its water-treatment system, said Ed Moore, director of public utilities for the city. The tab for that proposal was estimated at $312 million, he said.

But when the harmful algal bloom developed, leading to the do-not-drink warning, the city began to focus on detecting microcystin in its water system and treating and eliminating it, he told Bloomberg BNA Oct. 18.

The first priority, after the water temperature in Lake Erie had dropped enough to end the threat of a recurrence for the rest of 2014, was near-term improvements to the city’s water-treatment infrastructure that would help the city avoid a similar event in 2015, Moore said.

This included obtaining a $26 million zero-interest loan from the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency to quadruple the system’s ability to pre-treat water from Lake Erie with potassium permanganate and powder-activated carbon well before the water has reached the treatment plant. The city also beefed up the capability of the treatment plant itself, adding a chlorine-treatment facility that the plant had previously lacked.

Early Warning

The city also installed its own sonde, a water-quality measuring instrument, near the intake crib of the water system, which can detect the presence of microcystin. The city’s sonde, together with a network of about 10 others put in place by academic researchers, acts as an early-warning system, Moore said. As a result, the city can take advantage, for pretreatment purposes, of the 12-mile trip the water must take from intake to the treatment plant.

During the algal-bloom season, which lasts from late June to early October, the city now tests water at the intake point daily, a much more rigorous program than what the Ohio EPA requires, which is testing once every seven days until levels reach 5 parts per billion, he said.

After surviving the 2015 algae-bloom season without incident, the city turned its attention to the longer-term and particularly to a re-evaluation of its 20-year master plan, Moore said. Working with the Ohio EPA, the city convened a panel of experts from around the country to vet the plan, a process that led to a variety of changes, and an increase in the overall cost of the improvements to $500 million, he said. Around $80 million of that will be focused on the problem of harmful algal blooms, he said.

Chief among the panel’s recommendations was the addition of an ozonation system, a chemical treatment that involves infusing water with ozone, at a cost of $43 million, he said.

Statewide Response

Toledo’s 2014 water crisis had a significant impact at the state level, according to Heidi Griesmer, a spokeswoman for the Ohio EPA. But the problem was one that officials at the Ohio EPA were already well aware of, she said.

Already in 2011, the largest algal bloom since the 1970s was detected in Lake Erie, a signal that conditions in the lake and in the nearby drainage basin were changing, she said.

The Ohio EPA first developed a strategy for dealing with the harmful algal blooms in public water systems in 2008, she said. That strategy involved outreach to public water systems to provide information with how to test for microcycstin. But the strategy remained voluntary, she said.

After the 2014 event, which reverberated around the state, the Ohio EPA started acting more aggressively, offering millions of dollars in grants to public water systems to encourage testing for harmful algal blooms, and $150 million in no-interest loans for infrastructure improvements related to harmful algal blooms, she said.

Ohio’s surge in spending to address harmful algal blooms came as Congress began paying more attention at the federal level, also in response to the Toledo crisis. A report released Oct. 14 by the Government Accountability Office showed federal spending on the issue reached $101 million between 2013 and 2015 across 12 federal agencies.

Enforcement Muscle

The Ohio EPA also gained more enforcement muscle in 2015 as a result of new legislation requiring public water systems throughout the state to test for microcystin, she said.

“In the past, the reporting programs we had were voluntary, and we didn’t have a full-scale view of how harmful algal blooms were affecting water systems around the state,” she said. “Now we have much more information.”

However, the Ohio EPA also has been concerned with the main cause of the harmful algae problem—the increase in nutrients flowing into Lake Erie from agricultural operations, combined sewer overflows and faulty septic systems, she said.

The state has had a nutrient reduction strategy since 2011 and entered into an agreement with the state of Michigan and the Canadian province of Ontario in 2015 to reduce the amount of phosphorous in Lake Erie by 40 percent by 2025, she said. The state’s plan to implement that agreement will be finalized soon, she said.

Lawmakers also passed a bill (S.B. 1) during the 2015 session to address nutrients by prohibiting farmers from spreading manure on frozen, snow-covered ground in the western Lake Erie drainage basin. Another bill (S.B. 150), passed the previous year, requires farmers to undergo training on the proper use of fertilizers, she said.

Unsustainable Practices

Despite the flurry of activity from Toledo, the Ohio EPA and the state legislature, environmental activists said they are skeptical that the state has come to grips with what they say are unsustainable agricultural practices and failing sewer and water infrastructure that allow high levels of nutrients to wash into nearby waterways fueling the growth in algae.

Jen Miller, director of Sierra Club’s Ohio chapter, told Bloomberg BNA Oct. 19 that the problem will only be addressed effectively when the state moves beyond voluntary programs and begins to impose mandates upon and insist upon accountability from the agricultural sector.

“The state has not yet shown it is willing to dig in an hold the agricultural community responsible,” she said.

But Joe Cornely, a spokesman for the Ohio Farm Bureau, disagreed. He told Bloomberg BNA that farmers are oppposed to “one-size-fits-all” regulations.

Impact on Producing Food

“We are willing to do our part, and have shown that with what we’ve been doing already with research and training,” he said. “But we need to take into account the impact of what we do on our ability to produce the food we eat. And we need to make sure that what we are doing is really working.”

Cornely also said that all of the sources of nutrients need to be dealt with, including combined sewer systems and failing septic systems.

“We’re not going to be able to regulate farmers into a clean lake,” he said. “All of the sources of nutrients need to be addressed.”

Adam Rissien, clean water director for the Ohio Environmental Council, said that the upcoming implementation plan for the agreement with Michigan and Ontario to reduce phosphorous in Lake Erie by 40 percent is an example of the limitations in the approach the state is taking to the agricultural sector. Although he said he was encouraged that the state committed itself to participating in efforts to meet the target, and even agreed to do so by a date certain, the details of the plan, at least as contained in a draft that he has seen, remain too reliant on voluntary measures and incentives.

Mandatory Plans

“As it stands now, the plan does not address the source of the problem and does not include mandatory nutrient management plans backed up by site inspections of records and field operations, and limiting the use of manure and fertilizers to amounts that make sense from an agronomic point of view,” he said.

Miller agreed that mandatory management plans are needed to address the nutrients problem. “Every farmer should have a nutrient-management plan based on science,” she said. “And they should be held accountable. It’s not that farmers are bad people, but the way farmers do their work has to change, and business as usual has to change.”

But imposing requirements on agricultural producers has always been “exceedingly difficult,” Rissien said.

“You see it at the state level and you see it at the federal level, it’s just hard to get lawmakers to put mandates on farmers,” he said. “It’s kind of a sacred cow industry, and it goes back even to the Clean Water Act in 1972.”

Ongoing Algae Problems

But toxic algae will continue to plague Lake Erie and threaten people’s drinking water until officials get serious about addressing the root causes, he said.

“And that means Ohio’s lawmakers need to do more to control pollution from big agriculture,” he added.

To contact the reporter on this story: Christopher Brown in St. Louis at ChrisBrown@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at lpearl@bna.com

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