EPA touts ‘strides’ in reducing algae in drinking water

Keith Laing
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says it has made “strides” in reducing the amount of toxic algae that ends up in the nation’s drinking water.

In response to an inquiry from U.S. Rep. Fred Upton, R-St. Joseph, EPA Deputy Assistant Administrator Joel Beauvais said in a letter stamped July 20 that his agency “has made strides to address these challenges through many of the activities identified in the Strategic Plan,” which was developed to address the risk of toxic algae ending up in drinking water in November 2015.

“Management of harmful algal blooms in drinking waters poses many challenges, ranging from understanding health effects, to developing viable monitoring, analytical, and treatment methods to determining effective strategies for preventing cyanotoxins in drinking water,” Beauvais wrote to Michigan’s senior Republican federal lawmaker, who is the chairman of the powerful U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee.

The EPA’s strategic plan for addressing the risk of toxic algae ending up in drinking water was crafted in response to an algae bloom on Lake Erie in 2014 that caused drinking water in Toledo, Ohio, to have elevated levels of the bacteria known as microcystin. The algae outbreak was said to have left 500,000 people without access to clean drinking water.

Algae is created when nutrients — in the form of fertilizers and sewage discharges — are washed into streams and rivers during heavy rainfalls. In this region, much of the rainfall can eventually be carried to Lake Erie. In the lake’s shallow western end, nutrients that settle on the bottom can react to sunlight and form algae. In some cases, the algae created is toxic.

Researchers expect this year’s bloom to be smaller than last year due, in part, to 2016 precipitation levels.

Beauvais told Upton in the letter that the EPA has made progress on assessing “human health effects and a list of algal toxins of concern” and “providing guidance and technical assistance to states and utilities for improving cyanotoxin treatment options.”

He added the agency has also worked on “developing new analytical methods; increasing laboratory capacity; providing guidance and technical assistance for the public, states and utilities to improve existing monitoring programs; and developing modeling tools to better understand the causes of (harmful algal bloom) and improve source water protection strategies for HABs mitigation and prevention.”

The EPA’s strategic plan calls for federal regulators to “establish guidance on feasible analytical methods to quantify the presence of algal toxins, recommend the frequency of monitoring necessary to determine if algal toxins are present and recommend feasible treatment options including source water protection practices.”

Upton requested an update on the agency’s progress with the implementation of the strategic plan in a June 13 letter to Beauvais.

“As we move into summer months, increased amounts of algae and possible algal toxins are appearing in lakes, rivers and streams — some of which serve as source water for public drinking waters systems,” Upton wrote then.

Upton pressed the EPA to answers to questions about “what steps have been completed, what progress has been made and knowledge and what is currently planned” since the release of the strategic plan for reducing the amount of algae in the nation’s waterways.

Upton’s congressional office said the inquiries were apart of “Congressman Upton’s long history of supporting our Great Lakes ecosystem continues.

Upton’s spokesman, Tom Wilbur, said the St. Joseph Republican “will remain focused on working with Michigan stakeholders and the EPA to ensure this toxic scum does not adversely affect the health of our lakes and our drinking water.”

The EPA’s Beauvais said the agency “is committed to improving public health protection and making continued progress on activities discussed in the Strategic Plan.

“The agency will continue tracking the status of activities discussed in the Strategic Plan to ensure timely progress is made, and we expect to have a detailed summary of progress available at the end of 2016,” he wrote.

Beauvais thanked Upton for his “continued interest and support in protecting public health from the risks of cyanotoxins in drinking water.”


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Twitter: @Keith_Laing