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Ohio's U.S. Senators Introduce Legislation To Address Toxic Algae

Senator Sherrod Brown (right) compared algae-filled water with clear water on a recent visit to Stone Lab on Lake Erie. Researcher Justin Chaffin is on the left.
Lewis Wallace

Ohio’s U.S. Senators have introduced two bills that address the problems with toxic microcystins, a result of the bacteria known as blue-green algae, in the state’s waters. Toxins from algal blooms in Lake Erie caused a two-day shutdown of Toledo’s water system in August, and algal blooms have been reported in lakes around the state including Grand Lake St. Mary’s and Buckeye Lake.

The out-of-control growth of the blue-green algae, or cyanobacteria, in Ohio lakes starts upstream: the biggest known contributor is runoff from farms and other fields. Fertilizer gets into waterways, and that feeds giant blooms of the toxin-producing bacteria in the warm summer months. Other contributors include manure runoff, leaky septic tanks and storm overflows in aging sewer systems.

Senator Brown’s bill introduced Wednesday would make more funding available for the 73 municipalities in Ohio that have those sewage overflows, including Springfield, Cincinnati, Columbus, Toledo and Cleveland (Dayton’s system doesn’t have reported problems with overflows). The bill would authorize $1.8 billion in additional federal funds over five years, to be split in a 75-25 cost share.

“We under-invest in water and sewer systems,” said Senator Brown. “Whether it’s in a small town or a large city, these communities need help in upgrading their water systems.”

Brown also worked with Republican Senator Rob Portman and Democratic Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur of Toledo on a bill that would direct the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to set an actual standard for how much microcystin is okay to drink.

“Right now we’re relying on a suggestion from the World Health Organization of one part per billion or less of microcystins,” said Sen. Portman. “We don’t know if that’s the right level or not.”

After the water shutdown in Toledo in August, the Ohio EPA worked with the city of Toledo and agencies from around the state to develop a consistent testing protocol for microcystins; right now there is no state or federal legislation requiring water systems to test for the toxin, and no standard for safety. Consuming microcystins in large amounts can cause nausea, illness and even death in small animals. Currently cities who test for the toxin do so voluntarily, and make their own calls as to how much is safe.

Both legislators have said the issue is urgent.

“When 500,000 people lose their drinking water, and there’s no reason we won’t see other big algae blooms in the next five or ten years, and the climate is changing, there is not time for delay,” said Brown.

But there’s nothing on the table right now that would limit fertilizer or manure runoff. A state law passed this spring, SB 150, requires farmers to start getting certified and learn best practices beforethey put down fertilizer, but that requirement takes three years to go into effect.

Lewis Wallace is WYSO's managing editor, substitute host and economics reporter. Follow him @lewispants.

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