State lawmakers are likely to kick off hearings soon as they search for answers on what caused the toxic algae bloom that left Toledo without water this weekend, and what can be done to prevent the next one.
The sooner the better, said Rep. Dave Hall, R-Millersburg, chairman of the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee.
“Are there some quick changes we can do to help the issue? Well, I want to be able to understand the algae bloom situation,” Hall said, questioning what mixture of farmland runoff, wastewater treatment plant overflow and Lake Erie dredging caused the issue.
The hearings would be designed to gather information in advance of lawmakers returning to action following the November election.
The House already has a wide-ranging environmental bill, House Bill 490, part of Gov. John Kasich’s off-year budget proposals, that could house additional proposals for dealing with algae blooms. The bill, among other things, proposes to transfer the state’s Agriculture Pollution Abatement Program from the Ohio Department of Natural Resources to the Department of Agriculture.
“An incident like this, people are going to want to know how you fix it real quick,” Hall said. “I don’t know if I have an answer on a quick fix.”
Lawmakers have been hearing for years about growing concerns over algae blooms on Lake Erie. They unanimously approved a bill in January requiring many farmers to be certified by the state before spreading fertilizer on their fields. The bill, signed into law by Gov. John Kasich, is designed to limit the release of phosphorus into Ohio waterways.
“The farm community was willing to work on the reduction of phosphorus, which we know was the problem,” said Sen. Cliff Hite, R-Findlay, the sponsor of the bill. “But to feel the effects takes time. It’s hard to explain to people in the Toledo are that this is going to take time.”
Hite added: “If anything it’s brought it more to life. If we have to do more, we will.”
Hall said he plans to hold hearings on the algae bloom, likely in the Toledo area, where levels of microcystin, a toxin produced by blue-green algae forced nearly a half-million people to go without water for more than two days. The water ban has been lifted.
Going in, Hall is wondering if the heavy bouts of rain Ohio has experienced has caused excess runoff in water and sewage treatment plants.
“You’re probably going to see a lot of screaming going on over infrastructure of sewer plants,” he said. “Infrastructure is one of the issues we’re going to have to address.”
Upgrading water and sewage treatment plans is not cheap. Hall suggested diverting revenue from a new severance tax on fracking that passed the House and is awaiting action in the Senate.
“We had a spike a couple years ago. I’m surprised it’s just in a certain area,” Hall said of the Toledo crisis. “That tells me there was potentially a huge release of something that caused the cooking process in that area.”
In September 2013, algae blooms and microcystin forced Carroll Township to shut down its water plant. “There’s no question that if that was Toledo instead of Carroll Township, we would be in a different place today than we are,” said Sen. Randy Gardner, R-Bowling Green, who represents part of Lucas County and two other counties bordering Lake Erie.
While lawmakers and the governor have taken steps to address the algae issue in the long term, Gardner said short-term action is needed now.
“The immediate question is how can we promptly test and know as early as possible if there is a toxic algae problem, and how we can effectively treat for microcystin,” he said.
While the full algae bloom problem in Lake Erie is not as big as in the past, “we must learn as much as we can about why the algae becomes toxic. What is going on in the lake to create this toxic nature. That requires more research and a sense of urgency.”
The state needs to partner with local water systems, Gardner said, to ensure microcystin testing is occurring as frequently as possible. Money, he said, cannot be an obstacle.
“For those who are concerned about the environment, agriculture or the economics of the lake, this has always been a big issue,” he said. “But when you impact 500,000 people with something as fundamental as clean water, there’s no question this crisis has elevated the issue.”
Rep. Chris Redfern, D-Port Clinton, said research on Lake Erie is “desperately underfunded.”
“You can’t expect scientists to do what needs to be done if they don’t have the tools to do it,” he said, arguing that more money is needed for Ohio Sea Grant.
He also says the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency needs to quickly develop protocols for regular testing of microcystin.
“This is decades in the making. It will take decades to fix,” he said. “Once we determine there is a widespread problem, that’s when we need to look at infrastructure upgrades and water treatment systems, and not merely shift the burden onto the ratepayer.”
By Jim Siegel - The Columbus Dispatch, Ohio (MCT)
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