August 3, 2014 at 9:37 pm

Officials: Algae unlikely to reach toxic levels in Detroit

Detroit— Toledo’s contaminated water crisis has sent 400,000 people searching for alternatives and prompted utility officials elsewhere to review safeguards.

Among the questions: Can a toxic algae bloom in Lake Erie that prompted the water ban in northern Ohio and southern Michigan happen elsewhere? Is Toledo an aberration, or the start of a big problem?

Detroit Water and Sewerage Department officials plan to meet Monday to review contamination protocols and discuss whether additional testing or equipment is necessary here, said deputy director Darryl Latimer. The department provides water to 4 million residents, and Latimer said a repeat of Toledo’s problems is unlikely in Detroit, but not impossible.

“The system is tested every two weeks for blue-green algae,” Latimer said. “We haven’t seen the precursors for this type of toxin.”

Miles-wide blooms of green slime have been a problem in Lake Erie and other lakes, but research scientist Gary Fahnenstiel said he’d “be surprised if this is a persistent problem.”

“Ohio did the right thing saying, ‘Don’t drink the water.’ Other communities should be on alert, but this isn’t a cause for panic,” said Fahnenstiel, of the University of Michigan’s Graham Sustainability Institute.

“Toledo was very wise and very prudent, but (the toxicity levels) aren’t way over recommended levels. It’s not like people are going to touch this water and die.”

Detroit gets its water from Lake Huron and the Detroit River, which have strong currents that discourage algae accumulation, Latimer said. Lake Erie is far shallower and has had persistent problems with algae blooms.

“The chance of Detroit having problems with a bloom are very small,” Fahnenstiel said.

Toledo and state officials monitoring the water were waiting for a new set of samples to be analyzed Sunday before determining whether the water was safe.

“The hope would be this thing would dissipate or move out of the area,” Fahnenstiel said, adding that the wind and water currents should usher it out of the way. “There’s not a lot you can do about it — it’s really hard to treat.”

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration issued a bulletin Friday showing a bloom was concentrated in the western edge of Lake Erie, where Toledo gets its water. Hours later, unsafe levels of toxic microcystin, which can cause flu-like symptoms and kidney damage, were discovered in Toledo. The ban began about 2 a.m. Saturday, prompting a run on water deep into Michigan. Toledo officials warned residents not to use city water for drinking, brushing their teeth or washing dishes. The governor declared a state of emergency.

Other communities get water from Lake Erie, including Monroe, which issued a statement Sunday saying its water is safe for consumption. Water samples are tested for microcystin weekly, and none has shown it in the city’s system, according to the notice on the city’s website.

Operators of water plants all along Lake Erie, which supplies drinking water for 11 million people, have been concerned over the last few years about toxins fouling their supplies.

Almost a year ago, one township just east of Toledo told its 2,000 residents not to drink or use tap water. That was believed to be the first time a municipality has warned residents against using the water because of toxins from algae in the lake.

Most water treatment plants along the western Lake Erie shoreline treat water to combat the algae. Toledo spent about $4 million last year on chemicals to treat its water and combat the toxins.

Some 30,000 customers in four Monroe County communities in southern Michigan get water from Toledo: Luna Pier, Bedford and Erie townships and a portion of LaSalle Township.

Gov. Rick Snyder said Sunday that Michigan agencies are ready to help affected communities, all of which have set up stations so residents can get safe drinking water. The American Red Cross also can deliver water to those unable to pick it up.

The crisis prompted a run for water deep into Wayne County, as several stores were running low on cases of bottled water.

“I’m not in a panic mode,” said Yvonne Berman, 56, of Temperance, who bought two cases of water Sunday morning at a Kroger in suburban Toledo.

“From what I’ve seen, everyone has been extremely nice, everyone’s working together. The state of Ohio has been awesome. … But this should never happen again.”

Brenda Badger of Erie Township was among those getting water Sunday at a volunteer station in Luna Pier. She said her grandson, Kamari Johnson, 6, fell ill Friday night, vomiting into Saturday afternoon. After seeking medical attention, Badger said they were told Kamari was probably sick from the water. He took anti-nausea medication and is feeling better now.

Luna Pier Mayor Dave Davison said 40 people had to the city’s fire station to get water by late Sunday morning.

“We’ve had more Ohio residents than those from Michigan,” said Davison. “You name it, they brought it to fill up with water. We had one lady bring a bowl.”

In Saline, business was brisk at American Aqua a water purification and bottling company. The company sold $3,200 in water on Saturday, four times more than usual, said spokeswoman Erica Summer.

Many grocery stores limited cases of water per customer. At Kroger, the limit was four cases and Staci Leupp bought the maximum at a store in Holland, a Toledo suburb. She fell ill Friday night after eating and drinking at a restaurant, and she believes Toledo’s tainted water was the culprit.

“When I heard about the water, then I realized … that explains it, because I never get sick,” she said.

Media outlets reported some cases of price gouging, with water going for as much as $24 a case at some stores. Acts of kindness, however, seemed more abundant.

Craigslist users offered free well water from hoses, and members of Compelled Church in Holland gave away water from the back of a pickup.

“We have the resources to meet the need,” said church member Kirk Kramer. “It’s what the church needs to do.”

Detroit News Staff Writers Steve Murphy, Joel Kurth and The Associated Press contributed

Luna Pier Fire Department Lt. Warren Rains puts the hose back as Brenda Badger of Erie Township closes the container that was just filled with water at the Luna Pier fire station. / Robin Buckson / The Detroit News
Megan Anllo, a volleyball coach at Woodward High School, carries a bag of ... (Haraz N. Ghanbari / AP)