Ohio must put Lake Erie on 'pollution diet' under terms of settlement

Ohio must put Lake Erie on ‘pollution diet’ under terms of settlement

TOLEDO, OH — The State of Ohio must put in place a mandatory cap on algae-fed nutrient pollution entering Lake Erie under a proposed court settlement.

Public comment is being taken through Dec. 12 on a federal consent decree that would require Ohio to create a new plan to curb nutrient runoff from farms and livestock operations by developing a Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL ) for the Maumee River watershed.

TMDLs are known as “pollution regimes” and are created for impaired water bodies to identify how much pollution they can handle before water quality suffers too much.

Under the terms of the negotiated agreement, the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency (Ohio EPA) has until June 30 to finalize a new TMDL plan. The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) must then either approve it or create its own.

The settlement stems from a 2019 lawsuit filed against the EPA by the Environmental Law and Policy Center (ELPC) of Chicago and Lucas County, which surrounds Toledo.

Lucas County and the Legal and Policy Center claimed the EPA was violating the Clean Water Act by not forcing Ohio to take stronger action to reduce agricultural pollution entering the lake.

County leaders urged people to comment on the settlement.

“The comment period is a time when the public can hold the Ohio EPA to standards it has avoided for years,” said Lucas County Commissioner Pete Gerken.

“The only way to have an effective cleanup of Lake Erie is to ensure that those who add pollution to our water system adhere to mandatory standards,” Gerken said. “These standards are applied to municipal discharges from cities and counties and the same standards should be applied to other polluters.”

Under pressure from litigation, Ohio began developing a draft TMDL plan in 2020. For years, the state resisted both declaring the lake degraded and developing a cap on the nutrient pollution despite repeated annual algal blooms, which turn the lake green each summer and fall with toxic bacteria. which can sicken people and animals exposed to them.

This year’s bloom was the sixth worst on record. This lasted from mid-July to early November – a month longer than usual and the first time in 20 years the seaweed persisted after October.

“It’s not year to year that matters, it’s the long term,” said Don Scavia, a University of Michigan aquatic ecologist who works on bloom forecasting.

“We are not moving in the right direction yet.

If Ohio finalizes a TMDL plan by next year’s deadline, it will come just under nine years after 500,000 people in and around Toledo lost access to clean water for several days in August 2014, when algal toxins from the lake entered the city water. treatment system.

Michigan, Ohio and Ontario subsequently agreed to reduce nutrient levels entering the lake by 40% by 2025. This is a significant order in Ohio, as algae are primarily fed each spring and summer by phosphorus and nitrogen entering the Maumee River, a heavily-drafted watershed that is primarily in Ohio and accounts for nearly 90% of the nutrients entering the lake’s western basin.

Commercial fertilizers are the main source of nutrients in the Maumee watershed, but Rob Michaels, an attorney at the Environmental Law and Policy Center, said the giant livestock farms known as concentrated animal feed operations ( CAFO) are another major polluter.

Michaels said liquid manure from livestock farms is overused as fertilizer in the watershed and waste generators need regulatory limits placed on them.

“They spread a lot more (manure) than the crops really need and they spread it in such a way that some of it, even if it’s done at agronomic rates, goes into the water,” Michaels said. “These facilities must, in our view, have permits under the Clean Water Act; whose conditions can be reduced to achieve the objectives of TMDL.

This type of approach has been strongly opposed by agricultural interests, who have lobbied against mandatory measures in favor of voluntary approaches such as the H2Ohio program, which provides significant funding and technical support to incentivize farmers to reduce the phosphorus runoff using conservation techniques such as planting cover crops. .

The proposed consent decree does not specify the type of regulatory measures Ohio must use to reduce agricultural nutrient runoff entering the lake, but Michaels said the TMDL plan must include “reasonable assurances” that the goals of reduction targets “will, in fact, be achieved”. ”

In order to provide those assurances, Michaels said the Environmental Law and Policy Center and Lucas County believe the TMDL plan “should point to programs with enforceable standards and sustainable funding that we can rely on to achieve the reduction.” .

“The mechanisms by which reductions will be achieved must be clear and independently applicable,” he said. “And that will be where the rubber hits the road.”

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What Makes Lake Erie Algae So Toxic?

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