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Bill to cut Lake Erie toxic algae goes to Ohio governor

Ann Sanner
Associated Press

Columbus, Ohio — New rules for farmers aimed at reducing the toxic algae in Lake Erie won unanimous approval from the Legislature on Wednesday and were headed to the governor for his expected signature.

The wide-ranging bill would stop farmers in northwestern Ohio from spreading manure on frozen and rain-soaked fields. It also would bring an end to the dumping of dredged sediment in the lake within five years. Both are thought to be contributing to the growth of algae in the lake.

The measure would be the first passed in an effort to slow the spread of the algae since August, when a toxin contaminated the drinking water for more than 400,000 people in northwestern Ohio and southeastern Michigan.

Jim Zehringer, the state’s natural resources director, said the legislation gives Ohio the ability “to get bad actors into compliance” while working with those farmers who need help with the rules.

“Ohio’s fight against algae isn’t over, but these reforms will certainly help,” Zehringer said in a written statement.

Senate President Keith Faber told reporters at a Statehouse news conference the bill would help provide Ohioans access to “clean water, not green water.” At the same time, he said the rules allow the agriculture industry to remain viable.

“But viability should not be confused with a lack of environmental stewardship,” added Faber, a Celina Republican. “Excessive use of chemical fertilizers or organic fertilizers is unacceptable, and this bill will make meaningful changes to that process.”

The bill’s sponsors said they did not foresee any large hurdles in implementing the regulations, which would have to go through further rule-making review. They anticipated farmers would have more details on the new standards by December.

“I think the statute is pretty clear as to what’s expected,” said Sen. Randy Gardner, a Bowling Green Republican. He said the proposal incorporates many best practices already in place for farmers.

Gardner said he expected further discussion over how to enhance the bill’s impact during debate over the state’s two-year budget. Ideas could include more support for soil testing, tributary monitoring and conservation measures.

He also said he’d like to see a regional conference of environmental groups and local leaders to help take a more comprehensive approach to addressing algae problems.

“It’s not all about Ohio,” Gardner told reporters. “It’s about Indiana and Michigan and Ontario — at least those states.”

Environmental groups and the Ohio Farm Bureau support the bill.

A look at the Lake Erie algae bill passed by Ohio lawmakers

Key items in the bill

Regulating farmers and manure

Bans farmers in much of northwestern Ohio from putting livestock manure on fields when they are frozen or rain-soaked or when heavy rain is in the immediate forecast, and sets penalties of up to $10,000. Farmers could face a penalty for every day they are in violation — a stiffer measure than originally proposed. Small farmers can apply for a one- or two-year exemption from the ban if they submit a plan to show how they are making an attempt to comply. The exemptions were added to give small farmers more time to deal with the costs of storing or disposing of manure during winter months. The new rules on spreading manure on wet and frozen ground also will apply to companies that haul away manure from large livestock farms.

Ending dumping in the lake

Stops the dumping of sediment dredged from Ohio’s harbors and rivers into Lake Erie within the next five years. Ohio’s environmental regulators for decades have wanted to stop the dumping over concerns about how the sediment affects fish and water quality. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers oversees the dredging and has maintained that dumping sediment that isn’t polluted is safe and less costly. The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps have started working together on finding new ways to get rid of the tons of silt that is dredged primarily from the harbors in Toledo and Cleveland.

Testing for pollutants

Requires testing for phosphorus levels at the state’s large wastewater treatment plants beginning next year. Phosphorus that flows into the lake from farm fertilizers, livestock manure, sewage treatment plants and leaking septic tanks feeds the algae blooms. The measure also creates a new state coordinator to oversee monitoring, treating and testing of algae and work with wastewater plants, and it allows the state to tap into money for testing of fields and waterways for pollutants and ways to reduce farm runoff.

Source: The Associated Press