Today, Ohio House Democrats from along the Lake Erie shoreline discussed a series of policy proposals to stop the region’s toxic algal blooms and to prevent future public health emergencies, like last weekend’s Toledo water crisis.
The lawmakers urged Gov. John Kasich to immediately declare the Maumee Watershed as a “distressed watershed” to begin the process of curbing harmful chemical pollution in Lake Erie. This designation would trigger more stringent regulations for the storage, handling and application of chemicals and fertilizers throughout the area. The state’s 2013 Phosphorus Task Force report debunks common myths about contributing factors to algal blooms, and largely points to agricultural runoff as the primary source of distress—a fact Democrats considered while working on their initiatives.
“To seriously address harmful algal blooms in our state requires a firm commitment to significant reform from all parties involved,” said Rep. Teresa Fedor (D-Toledo). My colleagues and I are committed, and we know that the citizens of the Lake Erie region and of Ohio are committed. We hope now that the Governor and elected officials throughout the region will join in this commitment and we can all begin to work together to solve this crisis together.” Fedor also called on the governor to convene a multi-state task of Lake Erie state governors to develop long-term agricultural practices to ensure the sustainability of the Great Lake.
The lawmakers also said the Ohio EPA should heed the U.S. EPA’s guidelines on establishing open Lake Erie waters as an impaired waterways, so the agency could begin regulating the amount of chemicals that flow into the lake.
The Lake Erie Democrats revealed that the Ohio EPA Division of Surface Water—the authority that oversees everything from culverts to Lake Erie—is seeking public comment on their proposal to skirt Clean Water Act water quality standards, effectively lowering water quality in the state. The state EPA director’s letter detailing the proposed administrative rule change says, “I have determined that any lowering of water quality in various waters of the state as authorized by these certifications is necessary.”
“When there’s a public health crisis of this magnitude, Ohio taxpayers deserve leaders in their state that will meet environmental and public health threats with decisive action,” said Rep. State Chris Redfern (D-Catawba Island), co-chair of the Legislative Lake Erie Caucus. “And instead of that immediate action, we now find that the administration is actually looking to lower water quality standards. It is disgusting, and creates new questions that deserve the administration’s immediate attention.”
High phosphorus levels in manure and other chemical fertilizers contributed to the region’s algal bloom problems, increasing microcystin levels to dangerous levels. Federal and state environmental groups have long advocated for policy changes to prevent high microcystin levels, like applying manure to land before rainstorms or when the ground is frozen. Rep. Mike Sheehy (D-Orgeon) announced earlier this week plans to introduce legislation to better regulate manure practices.
“This bill is a common-sense first step towards curbing the amount of harmful chemicals that run into Lake Erie,” said Rep. Sheehy. “Manure application on wet or frozen ground is a major contributor to lake pollution and algal blooms, and experts have repeatedly pointed to these measures as good policy.”
To ensure drinking water is safe for the public, Rep. Michael Ashford (D-Toledo) called on the state to require and fund testing for microcystin in water supplies, the algae toxin that infiltrated Toledo’s water supply last weekend.
“We should be taking every precaution possible to ensure the safety of Ohio drinking water,” said Rep. Ashford. “The responsibility for the health and safety of Ohioans ultimately lies with the state. Further, with deep budget cuts to local communities over the past three years, the state should provide emergency funding to meet this new testing requirement.”
A Lake Erie Legislative Caucus meeting is scheduled for next Friday, August 15 at 10 a.m. at Maumee Bay State Park. Ohio EPA officials have been invited to present testimony, and the event is free and open to the public.