EPA reverses course on Lake Erie toxic algae decision
Toledo, Ohio – The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency wants Ohio to do another review of Lake Erie to determine whether it should be declared impaired by toxic algae blooms that have become a recurring threat in recent summers.
The agency in a letter to Ohio’s environmental director said it was reversing an earlier decision that had agreed with the state’s assessment that the western end of Lake Erie should not be listed as impaired.
The EPA’s reversal issued last week didn’t go as far as ordering the lake to be designated as an impaired watershed. Instead, it said the state’s list of impaired waters was incomplete and didn’t properly evaluate the lake’s waters.
Several environmental groups have sued the EPA saying the lake should be classified impaired because algae blooms are preventing the waters from meeting basic quality standards. The designation could pave the way for increased pollution regulations in the shallowest of the Great Lakes.
Michigan proposed in 2016 designating its portion of Lake Erie as impaired, but Ohio resisted doing the same for its entire section.
Craig Butler, director of Ohio’s Environmental Protection Agency, said the state will do the review but needs more details from the federal agency. It remains unclear, he said, is what the standards are that should trigger an impaired designation for the lake’s open waters.
Butler said the U.S. EPA earlier told the state that it doesn’t have a way to gauge the algae’s impact. He said the state is working with university researchers to come up with such a measurement standard.
“We have never said that Lake Erie doesn’t have problems,” Butler said.
Algae outbreaks have fouled drinking water twice since 2013 and are a threat to fish and wildlife. Last year’s bloom stretched along the shores of Ohio, Michigan and Ontario, Canada, and was among the largest in recent years.
Scientists largely blame phosphorus-rich fertilizer runoff from farms and municipal sewage overflows for feeding the algae growth.
Backers of listing the lake as impaired hope it will bring increased regulations on how farmers fertilize their fields and dispose of livestock manure.
The U.S. EPA’s change of course is welcome but doesn’t ensure adequate protection for the lake, said Howard Learner, president of the Environmental Law and Policy Center, which sued over Ohio’s refusal to designate its western section as impaired.
The federal agency should order Ohio to immediately develop plans known as “total maximum daily loads,” which would impose specific limits on phosphorus flows into the lake, Learner said. Instead, the U.S. EPA appears willing to wait for a new state evaluation due in April.
“They seem to be kicking the can down the road,” Learner said.
Associated Press reporter John Flesher in Traverse City, Michigan, contributed to this report.