Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Toledo Water Crisis Precipitates Hearings, Calls For More Farm Regulations

Toledo's drinking water advisory was lifted Monday, but the weekend-long warning against drinking the city's tainted water refocused attention on the persistent toxic algae problem blossoming in Lake Erie and other Ohio lakes.

Gov. John Kasich and Ohio Environmental Protection Agency Director Craig Butler applauded Toledo Mayor D. Michael Collins' decision to lift the drinking water advisory which the city issued early Saturday morning after finding levels of algae-produced toxins above the World Health Organization's recommended limits.  "The people of Toledo came together unselfishly to support one another over the past two days and are great examples of the Ohio spirit. My compliments also go to Mayor Collins and his team. They served their city well and we will continue to work with them closely and support them going forward," Gov. Kasich said in a statement.  "My hat is also off to all who worked around the clock to distribute water and other essentials. They made a big difference. Over the past two days we've been reminded of the importance of our crown jewel - Lake Erie - to our everyday lives. We must remain vigilant in our ongoing efforts to protect it," he said.

Director Butler said he agreed with the city's decision after "exhaustive testing, analysis and discussions" between Toledo water officials, OEPA and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.  "Throughout the difficulty of the past few days everyone involved has demonstrated the utmost professionalism and commitment to solving this problem. The mayor and his team, U.S. EPA and the other scientific and academic leaders who lent us their expertise worked in a constructive way to turn the water back on for the people of Toledo," he said.  "In the days ahead, we will continue to work closely with Toledo and others to better understand what happened and support their effort to supply safe drinking water to its customers," he said.

Toledo's drinking water scare comes a few months after the General Assembly passed legislation intended to help fight harmful algal blooms by reducing agricultural runoff that feeds the algae. The measure (SB 150) requires farmers to take classes on best management practices and obtain certification from the Department of Agriculture in order to apply chemical fertilizer on larger farms.

Rep. Dave Hall, chairman of the House Agriculture & Natural Resources Committee, said it would take time for the legislation to have a beneficial effect.  In the meantime, the chairman is planning to hold hearings algae the issue in late August or early September, he said. The committee will hear from experts and try to better pinpoint the source of Toledo's problem, whether it was overburdened waste water treatment plants, agricultural runoff exacerbated by heavy rain, or other factors.  "You have a lot of things to look at and my job as chairman is to bring in the experts and the different groups to figure out what was the cause. We know we've had algae blooms in the past but this one took hold and caused a problem," he said.  The hearings could potentially lead to an amendment in the mid-biennium review measure dealing with environmental and agricultural issues (HB 490), he said. The bill is still pending in his committee.  Chairman Hall anticipated some members might propose using revenue from a potential severance tax increase to help cities upgrade sewage treatment systems and others will likely want to increase restrictions on manure.

Sen. Edna Brown echoed environmentalists' concerns that the fertilizer application bill didn't do anything to regulate manure on large-scale livestock farms.  "This is a good first step in addressing runoff from farms and feedlots. But, there are two major shortcomings to this law. First, SB150 fails to include animal manure under the newly established guidelines for the application of fertilizer to fields. Second, fertilizer applicators are not required to comply with the law until 2017," she said.  Sen. Brown said she planned to introduce legislation to add animal manure to the list of fertilizers that are regulated under state law and to require farmers to comply with the new law sooner.  "Toxic algae does not distinguish between the source of a nutrient; phosphorus is phosphorus, regardless of whether it originates from commercial fertilizer or animal manure," she said.

Ohio Farm Bureau spokesman Joe Cornely cautioned against over-reacting to the toxic algae bloom problem.  "It's probably not the best idea to consider water quality without also considering food production. It's a complex issue and they go hand in hand, so it's important to recognize that we don't want to create unintended consequences," he said.  Large-scale livestock farms are already regulated by the Ohio Department of Agriculture and smaller operations are monitored by local soil and water conservation districts, he said. "Manure is already regulated under current law, so there's no need to duplicate it."  Nonetheless, the agriculture industry has known all along that the new regulations on chemical fertilizer might not be enough to stop harmful algae blooms, Mr. Cornely said.  "This is a first step in what will probably be a lengthy process," he said. "Just as we're saying that 150 was a first step, we also recognize that there might be other considerations down the road."

Kristy Meyer, managing director of agricultural, health and clean water programs for the Ohio Environmental Council, said regulating manure from livestock would do a lot more to prevent future algae blooms.  "Sewage is regulated. How can manure not be?" she said.  While there are some regulations preventing farmers from spreading manure on frozen ground where it easily runs off into streams and rivers, the state allows third parties to purchase the waste and spread it virtually no oversight, she said.  By comparison, Ms. Meyer noted that many Ohio cities' wastewater treatment systems are being required by the federal government to reduce combined sewer overflows that spill into waterways during heavy rains. "They need to be doing their part too, but largely they're more regulated."

Meanwhile, U.S. Sen. Rob Portman touted anti-algae legislation he sponsored that President Barack Obama signed last month.  The measure is designed to ensure that federal agencies prioritize monitoring, research and mitigation efforts on harmful algal blooms in fresh bodies of water such as Lake Erie, according to his office.  "Now that the residents of the Toledo region have access to safe and clean drinking water, we must quickly pin-point how these elevated toxin levels occurred and work to ensure this does not happen again," Sen. Portman said.  "I will continue to work with all parties to address this problem and to promote legislation - like my bill that combats harmful algae - that protects the health of Lake Erie," he said. "I remain committed to finding long-term solutions to prevent further compromises to our drinking water."

U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown announced that Ohio's joint application with Michigan and Indiana to improve water quality in the Western Lake Erie Basin has advanced to the next round for funding through the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP).  "While the ban has been lifted, our work to ensure safe drinking water has only begun," Sen. Brown said. "I'm pleased to announce that Ohio's joint application for Farm Bill funds to improve water quality in the Western Lake Erie Basin has advanced to the next round. We must incorporate regional, cutting-edge practices to prevent algal blooms and ensure safe drinking water."  The 2014 federal farm bill created the Regional Conservation Partnership Program, which provides $1.2 billion over the next five years to promote conservation partnerships to ensure clean soil and water, according to Sen. Brown's office. The Tri-State Western Lake Erie Basin Phosphorus Reduction Initiative would help implement conservation practices to reduce the flow of nutrients into the lake.

Attorney General Mike DeWine responded to Toledo's water crisis by sending his representatives to monitor complaints about price gouging for bottled water.  "We have seen the best of many Ohioans who have generously helped those needing water in the Toledo area, but we also have heard allegations of possible price gouging in the area," he said, and told consumers who think they overpaid for bottled water to contact his office.  Ohio does not have a statute that deals directly with price gouging, but state law bans unconscionable sales practices, according to the attorney general's office.

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