TOLEDO: AFTER THE SLIME
THE CRISIS, THE CAUSES, THE ROADBLOCKS TO A FIX
On August 2, 2014 the city of Toledo released an urgent notice to all Toledo water users. The city was asking anyone who receives water from Toledo to avoid drinking boiling or using the water. This warning also touched people in Lucas County and parts of Michigan. In all, over 400,000 people were affected.
Toledo gets its drinking water from Lake Erie, and local water authorities feared that the drinking water contained too much "microcystin" - a cyanobacteria or blue-green algae toxin that can cause liver and stomach problems.
Soon, all area stores were out of water and many residents caught short since the advisory was issued at 1:00 am in the morning.
The Red Cross and close to 100 fire stations in Lucas County started distributing water.
"Each family has to bring their own jugs and they get five gallons of water at a time," said Captain Jeff Hibbard who was giving out water at the Whitehouse Village Fire Station on August 2.
The state says it spent $187,000 buying bottled water for Toledo during the algae-related water emergency.
There had been known problems with Toledo's Public Water System, in particular the Collins Park Water Treatment Plant, but the onslaught of blue-green algae in Lake Erie combined with unclear drinking water procedures for microcystins were the root of the problem in Toledo.
According to Toledo Mayor D. Michael Collins the problem was not about the treatment plant but rather the alarming proliferation of toxic algal blooms in Lake Erie and the absence of clear standards; at the time of the crisis, he told Fox News,"it became evident that local, state and federal scientists couldn't agree on what the proper testing methods were, or what constituted a safe level of microcystin."
Ohio EPA Director Craig Butler agreed admitting that there 'was some confusion."
On August 4, Doug Wagner, the water plant superintendent for the town Oregon, which gets it water from an intake about a mile away from Toledo's, told the Toledo Blade that the high microcystin count was probably "caused by some change in how the neighboring water system tests for microcystin, rather than an abrupt change in the toxin's level".
On the Canadian side of the Great Lakes, a situation similar to the one in Toledo would have taken much longer to resolve; tests for microcystin are sent to a central Ontario analytic laboratory, where it takes a week approximately to get results.
Dale Dillen the operations manager for a treatment plant that supplies water to four municipalities on Lake Erie: Kingsville, Leamington, Essex and part of Lakeshore Township, told Water Today on August 3, 2014: "We have an online blue-green analyser and right now the levels are acceptable; but as far as I know it it doesn't test for microcystins. We'd have to send samples to an accredited lab for microcystin analysis."
John Donahue, the President of the American Water Works Association, is of the opinion that treating the source of nutrient contamination is far more effective than monitoring and managing its effects on drinking water.
In November 2104, in testimony before the U.S. House Subcommittee on Environment and the Economy, he stressed that the solution to keeping drinking water safe from cyanotoxins begins with reducing nutrient pollution. Donahue pointed out that cyanotoxin contamination is always associated with excessive amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus in water. Water treatment technology exists to allow drinking water utilities to remove toxins produced by algal blooms, Donahue said, but he also noted that the technology is very expensive to acquire and maintain.
It is a well-known fact that the primary sources of nutrient pollution are runoff of fertilizers, animal manure, sewage treatment plant discharges and storm water runoff.
While it is clear what is causing the invasion of green slime in Lake Erie and other lakes and rivers around the world, the fix is at once an administrative nightmare, extremely costly and politically explosive.
Drinking Water Standards for mycrocystin
Mycrocystin is one of more than 100 toxins in the natural environment that are under review by the US EPA; the agency maintains that defining safe levels of mycrocystin in drinking water and setting up testing standards will take years.
After Toledo, a federal legislation that would compel the U.S. EPA to move faster on adopting a drinking water standard for microcystin, unanimously passed the U.S. Senate, but died, some say mysteriously, in the House before the holiday break in December 2014. The bipartisan "Safe and Secure Drinking Water Act of 2014" directed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to develop recommended standards by late next spring on what levels of microcystins are safe for human consumption. The Bill is to be reintroduced in the House, this year, but time is running out for standards to be agreed upon by this spring.
Combined Sewage Overflow (CSO)
According to a June 2012 study by the Alliance for the Great Lakes,
"The Great Lakes were sullied in 2011 by 18.7 billion gallons of combined sewage and storm runoff,
a foul cocktail released into the waters by seven of the basin's largest dischargers. It is a scenario
repeated year after year as billions of gallons of raw sewage, trash and personal hygiene products - along with industrial wastewater, household chemicals, urban runoff, herbicides and pesticides - flow into the Great Lakes after heavy rains."
In the US, reducing Nutrients in sewage that flows into aquatic ecosystems has been regulated since 2000 when Congress amended the Clean Water Act to incorporate a CSO policy into federal law. In addition to taking immediate action to reduce overflows, the CSO control policy requires municipalities to develop a Long-Term Control Plan (LTCP) to manage and eliminate CSOs.
Since then it has been an ongoing process in municipalities across the United States, but the costs are astronomical and the measures don't always stand up to the type of extreme rain and snow events that are becoming typical in a climate warming environment.
Last August, despite the fact that Detroit has spent more than $500 million to date to reduce its CSO, 10 billion gallons of sewer overflow poured into southeast Michigan's waters, including Lake St Clair and its tributaries, after an extreme storm flooded the city.
Further complicating the issue in the case of Lake Erie and other Great Lakes is the added trans-boundary dimension. Any measure to reduce nutrients, not coordinated on both sides of the US/Canada border, is doomed to fail. Just recently, an article published in the Toronto Sun reported that a team of US-Canada scientists believe that the toxic algae that forced the shutdown of Toledo's water intake last summer, has links that reach far into Southwestern Ontario.
"All of Southwestern Ontario's urban turf and vast farmland -including human sewage, animal waste and chemical fertilizers - drains into the Thames River, which empties into Lake St. Clair and into Erie."
Canada lags behind in its management of Combined Sewer Overflow. Its Wastewater Regulations, developed under the Fisheries Act and enacted in 2012, take the first step towards managing combined sewer overflows. They require owners and operators of wastewater systems with combined sewers to record information on the quantity and frequency of effluent discharged from them and to submit annual reports and develop a plan of reduction. Previously there was no regulations forcing municiplaities to report CSOs.
Reducing nutrients in water
Environmental measures inevitably butt heads with business interests. When it comes to nutrients, its agriculture.
The following quote - by Mary Jane Angelo, Director, Environmental and Land Use Law Program University of Florida - sums up the issue pretty clearly.
"Although agriculture is one of the most significant and pernicious causes of water pollution in the U.S., federal environmental laws designed to protect water resources exclude or exempt most agricultural activities. State efforts to address water quality impacts from agriculture have met with little success. The challenge of finding a way to reduce agricultural water pollution without causing severe economic harm to farmers is one of the greatest environmental challenges of our time." .
As a point in case, a new rule proposed by the U.S. EPA that would give the agency the authority to regulate streams, wetlands, and other "intermittent and ephemeral" waters is already being labelled a 'power grab'in some factions and creating a political storm that doesn't bode well for its passage.
Already, the spending bill approved by Congress in December includes a provision that will prevent the clean-water rule from regulating agricultural drainage ditches and ponds. Farms, which contribute most of the pollutant runoff into lakes and rivers, will be largely exempt from the new rule.
THE ATTACK OF THE SLIME - Study finds that algae blooms create their own favorable conditions - 1/24/15
Water Today Dailies on the crisis - 8/3/14
Experts comment on Toledo - 8/3/14