Toledo Blade: Judge Says He May Back Away from Lake Erie Algae Lawsuit

Judge Says He May Back Away from Lake Erie Algae Lawsuit
By Tom Henry

While still clearly disgusted by the lack of progress toward solving western Lake Erie’s chronic algae problem, U.S. District Judge James Carr has left open the possibility of eventually backing away from the case in front of him — but only if there comes a point in time in which state and federal agencies convince him they are taking the public health threat seriously enough.

Right now, the judge said, they’re not.

Throughout a two-hour discussion in open court Wednesday with lawyers from the U.S. Department of Justice and the Chicago-based Environmental Law and Policy Center, Judge Carr underscored his desire to see the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and its state partner, the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, become “truly aggressive” and said they “should treat this as a grave condition.”

But Judge Carr, who in an April 10 filing accused those two agencies of botching the Lake Erie impairment controversy, also broadened his appeal to members of the Ohio General Assembly — especially conservatives who have made it virtually impossible to pass stricter rules on agriculture. He likewise implored agencies such as the Ohio Department of Agriculture to make algae-prevention their No. 1 priority.

Nobody, he said, can dispute Lake Erie is “sick.”


Cleveland Plain Dealer: FirstEnergy Must Guarantee Nuclear Clean Up, Environmental Groups Tell Feds

FirstEnergy must guarantee nuclear clean up, environmental groups tell feds
By John Funk

CLEVELAND, Ohio – FirstEnergy’s power plant subsidiaries have not put enough money into federally mandated decommissioning trust funds to pay for the shutdown and cleanup of each of its four nuclear reactors, charges an environmental group with a reputation as a legally effective environmental advocate.

The Chicago-based Environmental Law and Policy Center, or ELPC, made that charge in a petition filed in March with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The ELPC’s intervention in the Peabody Energy bankruptcy led to the court requiring that company to purchase $1.2 billion in surety bonds to guarantee clean up.

The ELPC wants the NRC to hold parent company FirstEnergy Corp. responsible for bankrolling what it argues could well be a multi-billion reactor cleanup shortfall, which taxpayers or customers could be forced to pay.

The ELPC petitioned the NRC just days before the FirstEnergy Solutions Corp. filed for bankruptcy protection on March 31 and the FirstEnergy Nuclear Operating Co. told the NRC it would close its nuclear plants within two years.

Now the ELPC, joined by the New York-based Environmental Defense Fund, the Ohio Environmental Council and Ohio Citizen Action, have intervened in the bankruptcy case under way in the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Northern District of Ohio.


InsideClimate News: Toxic Algae Blooms Occurring More Often, May Be Caught in Climate Change Feedback Loop

May 15, 2018
Toxic Algae Blooms Occurring More Often, May Be Caught in Climate Change Feedback Loop
By Georgina Gustin

Blooms of harmful algae in the nation’s waters appear to be occurring much more frequently than in the past, increasing suspicions that the warming climate may be exacerbating the problem.

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) published newly collected data on Tuesday reporting nearly 300 large blooms since 2010. Last year alone, 169 were reported. While NOAA issues forecasts for harmful algal blooms in certain areas, the advocacy group called its report the first attempt to track the blooms on a nationwide scale.

The study comes as scientists have predicted proliferation of these blooms as the climate changes, and amid increasing attention by the news media and local politicians to the worst cases.

Just as troubling, these blooms could not only worsen with climate change, but also contribute significantly to greenhouse gas emissions.

EWG based its study on news reports and before-and-after satellite images that show the expansion of the blooms. Though the rapid increase in the annual numbers might reflect more thorough observations and reporting in recent years, Craig Cox, who focuses on agriculture for EWG, said the numbers may still be on the low side.

In 2014, the news was especially urgent in Toledo, where a toxic algal bloom in Lake Erie forced health officials to declare the water unsafe for drinking and bathing. Harmful algae blooms had been common in the western part of Lake Erie from the 1960s through the 1980s, but they had diminished with better pollution controls—until about a decade ago, according to NOAA.

Now the blooms—thick undulating mats of green—have become an annual occurrence there.

The root cause of the problem lies mainly in agricultural runoff that contains phosphorus, which encourages algal growth.

At a recent conference, the mayor of Toledo pointed the blame for the continuing problem squarely at the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation, saying that lawmakers in the state were too intimidated by the group to support legislation to deal with the problem. “It’s probably the most powerful interest group in Ohio,” Mayor Wade Kapszukiewicz said in an interview.

Kapszukiewicz noted that the city spent billions of dollars upgrading its water treatment facility more than a decade ago and that there have been no sewage overflows into the lake since then, and yet the blooms are getting worse. “Toledoans are paying for a problem we didn’t create,” he said.

“Nutrient runoff” comes from sewage and other sources, but mostly from fertilizer and manure, which are especially high in phosphorus.

The agricultural industry in Ohio and elsewhere has long been aware of the problem. Joe Cornely, a spokesman for the Ohio Farm Bureau, said the bureau had been looking into it for years. But when it came to legislative and regulatory measures, Cornely said: “You’ve heard the old saying, ‘You can have it fast or right.’ We want it to be right.”


Toledo Blade Editorial: A Crusade for Lake Erie

Editorial: A Crusade for Lake Erie

Lake Erie has found a champion in U.S. District Judge James Carr. The judge last week ruled that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has some answering to do for the way it handled the Ohio’s seemingly lax oversight of the lake’s environmental well-being.

Even though Gov. John Kasich’s Ohio EPA finally relented last month and admitted that Lake Erie is so polluted that it qualifies as impaired under the terms of the Clean Water Act, Judge Carr is pressing forward.

Chicago-based Environmental Law & Policy Center and Toledo-based Advocates for a Clean Lake Erie filed the lawsuit last year to force just such a designation. Invoking federal law should trigger federal oversight of a Lake Erie cleanup, which should have more teeth than the voluntary measures the Kasich administration has insisted for years will be enough to solve the pollution problem.

But even though the U.S. EPA has instructed Ohio officials to revisit their science on the matter and Ohio authorities have given Lake Erie the impaired label the lawsuit’s plaintiffs were seeking, Judge Carr is not ready to call the case closed.

He has taken both agencies to task and signaled that he intends to retain jurisdiction over the case. If the environmental regulators who are supposed to recognize pollution fouling the source of drinking water for millions of Great Lakes residents do not, apparently the judge is ready to take on that watchdog role.

And even though the impairment designation was an important step, it was just the first step in what will undoubtedly be a long and arduous process of cleaning up the lake.

The phosphorus pouring out into the open lake each year has fueled toxic algae blooms that threaten Lake Erie’s sport fishing and tourism, Toledo’s drinking water, the region’s economic revitalization, and our quality of life.

Agricultural runoff is the main culprit in this phosphorus runoff, but tracking exactly how much comes from where in the watershed of the lake’s western basin will require study. More than that, setting limits on this pollution and helping farmers meet them will be no easy task.

The Kasich administration wants the General Assembly to expand the definition of agricultural pollution to include phosphorus runoff. This would give the state’s agriculture department more authority and also would allow the state to set phosphorus limits in ways it cannot do now.

Predictably, the state’s powerful agricultural lobby is already pushing back, calling regulation premature and recommending more study and a slower pace.

Ohio’s farmers need a healthy Lake Erie with drinkable, fishable, swimmable water too. And Lake Erie is going to need more than one champion. Now it is time for a few lawmakers in Columbus to join Judge Carr’s cause.

Great Lakes Now: Federal judge orders U.S. EPA to enforce Clean Water Act in Ohio

By Gary Wilson

Activist: Agencies “not willing to act in the public interest”

A federal judge said last week that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had “given Ohio a pass” on declaring Lake Erie officially “impaired” for waters with toxic algae going back to 2012 and 2014. The opinion written by Judge James Carr excoriated both the Ohio and the U.S. EPA’s for not living up to requirements under the Clean Water Act going back to 2012.

An “impaired” designation requires a state to implement a plan to remediate the deficiency. Ohio has consistently declined to designate the open waters of Lake Erie as “impaired” in spite of ample and long-standing scientific evidence to the contrary.

Ohio has instead, with the knowledge of its overseer, the U.S. EPA, parsed the law and played a game of “administrative pushball” according to Judge Carr where it tried to push responsibility for declaring the lake impaired back to the U.S. EPA based on an agreement with other states and Canada.

Michigan has declared its portion of Lake Erie impaired.

In the opening remarks of the decision, the judge set the table by recounting details of the 2014 Toledo water crisis where 500,000 people were told that their water was “not fit to drink or use for any other household purpose.”

The case before the judge was brought by Chicago’s Environmental Law and Policy Center (ELPC) and the Toledo nonprofit Advocates for a Clean Lake Erie (ACLE). The groups sued saying that the U.S. EPA had missed deadlines in holding Ohio accountable for declaring whether or not the open waters of Lake Erie were “impaired.”

The judge’s ruling sent the case back to the U.S. EPA and gave the agency 30 days to either approve or disapprove of Ohio’s “impaired” waters list. Perhaps sensing a legal defeat, Ohio has recently moved closer to declaring Lake Erie’s open waters impaired and has indicated a receptiveness to tighter regulations to control nutrient runoff from farms. Legislation with tighter regulations on farm activity is said to be in the works in the Ohio legislature. The administration of Gov. John Kasich has consistently yielded to the requests of farmers who say voluntary measures to control pollution runoff will work.

Slow path to health

Judge Carr wrote in his decision that the U.S. EPA said that remediation of Lake Erie after an “impaired” designation could take between eight and 23 years.

Carr noted that in 1988 Ohio’s General Assembly moved to eliminate phosphorus from laundry detergent that also plagued Lake Erie in a law passed in 1990. .

The judge said similar legislative action to deal with nutrient runoff from farms “appears to be the most expeditious and effective means of accomplishing the goals of the Clean Water Act.”

“More importantly, it could probably do so in substantially less time than the potential twenty-three years it will otherwise take,” Judge Carr wrote.

Ohio Gov. Kasich’s term is up in 2019 leaving the governor’s seat open.

ELPC’s Learner has advice for citizens voting in this years gubernatorial race. “People should be asking the candidates for governor, what action are you going to take to reduce pollution that has led to toxic blue-green algae blooms that threaten safe, clean drinking water for more than a half a million people in the Toledo area,” Learner says.

Neither the U.S. EPA or the Ohio EPA has commented on the judge’s ruling.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration begins its annual forecasts of Lake Erie algae blooms for 2018 in early May.


Toledo Blade: Data Shows Lake Erie Impairment Declaration Was Justified in 2010

April 13, 2018
Data Shows Lake Erie Impairment Declaration Was Justified in 2010
By Tom Henry

Although Ohio has joined Michigan in declaring the open waters of western Lake Erie as impaired, new data shows there was scientific justification to do that as far back as 2010 — four years before the Toledo water crisis.

The data was generated for the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency after the U.S. EPA told the state agency back in January to rethink the Kasich administration’s steadfast refusal over many years to declare the open water as impaired. The administration’s reversal on that front undoubtedly will mean unprecedented controls on agriculture and tighter sewage regulations.

Tim Davis, a former National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration algae researcher in Ann Arbor, told attendees of the annual Lake Erie Foundation conference that the science — though not developed until a few weeks ago — shows the lake’s open water should have been declared impaired in 2010.

The conference was held Thursday at W.W. Knight Nature Preserve.

Mr. Davis explained a complicated formula he and other algae researchers were asked to develop by the Ohio EPA once it looked like the U.S. EPA was headed toward defeat in the lawsuit brought against it by the Chicago-based Environmental Law & Policy Center on behalf of Toledo-based Advocates for a Clean Lake Erie.

The formula has a metric scientists developed for determining years in which algal blooms grow particularly strong. Once at least two years of excessive blooms have been documented over a consecutive six-year period, then the impairment declaration should have been made. That was back in 2010, said Mr. Davis, also a Bowling Green State University algae researcher.

Joining Mr. Davis in developing that protocol were BGSU algae colleagues George Bullerjahn and Mike McKay, as well as Tom Bridgeman, University of Toledo algae specialist and newly named director of UT’s Lake Erie Center; Justin Chaffin, who heads algae research for Ohio Sea Grant and Ohio State University’s Stone Laboratory, and others. The work was done in collaboration with the Ohio EPA and the U.S. EPA, Mr. Davis said.

“It was the lawsuit that caused this [research project],” Mr. Davis added. “Even though they [the Ohio EPA] weren’t defendants, they were getting heat from the U.S. EPA.”

Lake Erie has more than 200 types of algae. Most of it — especially that known as diatoms — are healthy and contribute to the food chain.

Even small blooms of the bad stuff — microcystis and other forms of cyanobacteria classified as harmful algal blooms because of the toxins they produce — are considered normal.

But the report by Mr. Davis and others shows five of the last six years have produced blooms well beyond what scientists believe is acceptable, and that Lake Erie has had unacceptably large and toxic blooms two-thirds of the time since 2002.

Based on the formula, the absolute earliest Lake Erie could have its impairment declaration scientifically justified for removal would be 2023, Mr. Davis said.

“But that would be highly unlikely,” he added.

Many conference attendees who have followed algae issues for years were annoyed it took the Kasich administration so long to come around but weren’t surprised to learn the science shows the declaration should have been made eight years sooner.


Press Release: Federal Judge Carr Orders U.S. EPA to Move Quickly to Comply with Clean Water Act and Protect Lake Erie


Contact: Judith Nemes

Federal Judge Carr Orders U.S. EPA to Move Quickly to Comply with Clean Water Act and Protect Lake Erie from Impairment by Harmful Algae Blooms 

U.S. EPA admonished for its “whiff of bad faith” in ignoring its obligations under the Clean Water Act

TOLEDO, Ohio — U.S. District Judge James G. Carr issued a decision late Wednesday directing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to make clear, within 30 days, its position on the impairment of Lake Erie’s open waters. The Court’s order recognized that an “about face” at the 11th hour by U.S. EPA in January 2018 had effectively “adopted and endorsed” the Environmental Law & Policy Center’s argument in its lawsuit that the U.S. EPA’s initial approval of Ohio’s failure to determine open waters of Lake Erie are impaired by pollution violated the Clean Water Act.

Judge Carr held that U.S. EPA’s “legal maneuvering” in withdrawing its original decision at the last minute created a “whiff of bad faith” – after years of delay – in order to defer a final ruling at this time.

“The time for Ohio pollution reduction standards and actions is now,” said Howard Learner, ELPC’s Executive Director.  “As Judge Carr stated in his Opinion: ‘That would mean that much sooner, rather than later, the right of all persons dependent upon a clean, toxic-algae-free Lake Erie for access to safe drinking water could be accomplished and guaranteed.’

“We’re pleased that the federal district court directed U.S. EPA to comply with the Clean Water Act and make a clear determination within 30 days that Lake Erie’s open waters are impaired by pollution,” Learner said. “The court agreed with our legal position that U.S. EPA and Ohio EPA have improperly dragged their feet for years instead of stepping up to take prompt and necessary actions to protect Lake Erie from toxic algae blooms.

“The judge’s decision requires the U.S. EPA and Ohio EPA to issue strong standards to prevent pollution from agricultural runoff in order to avoid toxic algae blooms and protects safe clean drinking water in Lake Erie for people in the Toledo area,” Learner said.

Environmental Law & Policy Center, Advocates for a Clean Lake Erie and two of the group’s officers are co-plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

Read Judge Carr’s order here.


Toledo Blade: Judge Slams EPA for Lake Erie Impairment Controversy

April 11, 2018
Judge Slams EPA Over Lake Erie Impairment Controversy
By Tom Henry

In a decision hailed by environmental advocates as a major victory for clean drinking water, Senior U.S. District Judge James G. Carr accused the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency of botching the Lake Erie impairment controversy and, at one point, went so far as to say the federal agency demonstrated a “whiff of bad faith.”

The judge’s 25-page order, filed in Toledo on Wednesday night, gives the U.S. EPA 30 days to reconsider its failure to challenge the Ohio EPA’s controversial Oct. 20, 2016, finding that the open water of western Lake Erie did not meet criteria the state agency believed was necessary under the Clean Water Act to be designated as impaired.

An algae bloom from Lake Erie appears in the boat basin at International Park in Toledo in 2017.

The U.S. EPA accepted the state’s finding last year, first without formally acting on it.

Then, two days after it was sued by the Chicago-based Environmental Law & Policy Center and Toledo-based Advocates for a Clean Lake Erie last May, the federal agency passed the report through its administrative process but said it was deferring to the state of Ohio’s judgment not to list the open water as impaired.

The two groups sued, claiming the U.S. EPA missed an important deadline and failed to make a final decision one way or the other. In his ruling, Judge Carr agreed that’s not good enough and remanded the case back to the federal agency.

Although the Kasich administration finally did an about-face after years of resistance on behalf of agriculture by declaring the western basin impaired on March 22, the lawsuit remains active because it is focused on the U.S. EPA’s actions as a regulator. Judge Carr said he will continue to “retain jurisdiction over this suit and all matters affecting it.”

Lake Erie’s western basin has been plagued by chronic bouts of algae toxic enough to make people sick or possibly even die since 1995. The impairment controversy has drawn a lot of attention, because the designation allows for unprecedented controls on sources of algae-forming pollution, which today is primarily agricultural runoff.

“Ohio’s persistent failures came to a head in 2016,” according to Judge Carr’s order, which said the state’s reluctance to declare western Lake Erie as impaired goes back to at least 2012. That’s two years before Toledo’s high-profile 2014 water crisis, when the city’s tap water was so fouled by an algal toxin that the metro area’s 500,000 residents were told by health officials to avoid it for almost three days.

The state agency could have made the declaration in biennial reports submitted in 2012, 2014, or 2016, but its “rebuke put the U.S. EPA in a difficult position,” the judge wrote.

While stating the federal agency “had, in effect, given Ohio a pass,” the judge also wrote that Ohio ignored its “opportunity and its duties” as a regulator. Judge Carr further stated that the U.S. EPA compounded Ohio’s inaction with more inaction by failing to act on the state’s 2016 report for nearly five months. The judge wrote that lack of oversight occurred despite Ohio’s “unmistakable failure to do what it promised the U.S. EPA it would do after 2014.”

He seemed particularly upset by the U.S. EPA waiting until a federal holiday — Jan. 15, Martin Luther King, Jr., Day and one day before his Jan. 16 deadline for motions — to tell the Ohio EPA in writing it was having second thoughts about the state’s refusal up to that point to declare western Lake Erie impaired.

Judge Carr said he was never notified — formally or informally — by the U.S. EPA, and heard about the new development in a roundabout way, from a clerk who passed down word from the ELPC.

“Defendants’ oversight amplifies the whiff of bad faith arising from the timing of its inexplicably delayed notice to plaintiffs’ counsel,” he wrote.

The judge also said he recognizes that farm runoff is much more complicated than sewage discharges and other point sources. In his decision, he noted that U.S. EPA counsel stated during oral arguments that meaningful reductions in farm runoff could take eight to 23 years.

Howard Learner, ELPC executive director, said he was impressed by the tone of Judge Carr’s remarks.

He said the judge called out both agencies for “bad faith and procedural maneuverings” and said the Ohio EPA “has dodged and weaved its statutory obligations over the years.”

“The judge, in effect, is saying ‘Quit playing games,’” Mr. Learner said. “This is a good day for the public and a good day for safe, clean drinking water.”

Mike Ferner, ACLE founder, said he hopes Judge Carr retains jurisdiction for a long time.

The U.S. EPA and the Ohio EPA declined comment. Both agencies said they are still reviewing the order.


Fixing Lake Erie’s Harmful Algae Problem Will Take Real Facts and Real Plans

by Madeline Fleisher

As a lawyer, I spend a fair bit of time arguing, but it’s important for those arguments to rest on actual facts.  Here’s a fact pretty much everyone who cares about Lake Erie agrees on: harmful algal blooms are a big problem for the lake.  Thanks to an ELPC lawsuit, the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency is finally recognizing that fact means all of western Lake Erie should be designated as impaired under the Clean Water Act.  That “impairment” designation is a key trigger for comprehensively addressing the phosphorus pollution – primarily from agricultural sources of manure and fertilizer – that drives harmful algal blooms and the toxins they produce.  The Clean Water Act requires such pollution to be addressed through a “Total Maximum Daily Load,” or TMDL, that sets an overall cap on the amount of pollution going into a water body and maps out a strategy for achieving pollution reductions to meet that cap.

Ohio EPA is now saying it doesn’t need to prepare a TMDL for western Lake Erie because there are already state and federal plans in place to meet a target of reducing phosphorus discharges by 40% by 2025 under the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement (GLWQA), an accord between the United States and Canada.  That begs the question what facts do we have about what Ohio’s preferred approach will accomplish?  For answers, I think it’s reasonable to turn to the U.S. EPA “Action Plan” summarizing federal and state efforts under the GLWQA.

There are three facts that jump out from this Action Plan to show that Ohio, other states, and the U.S. EPA must do more to stop massive harmful algal blooms and toxic water pollution in western Lake Erie:

1)  We need much broader adoption of agricultural “best management practices” in order to reduce phosphorus discharges into western Lake Erie by 40%.

The U.S. Action Plan offers a useful peek at the research to date on how much reform will be needed to agricultural practices to achieve the targeted 40% phosphorus reduction.  These include a USDA study showing that a 43% reduction would be achieved through improved nutrient management, erosion control, and cover crops only if those practices were adopted for 95% of cropped acres in the western Lake Erie watershed.  Similarly, a 2016 analysis indicated that subsurface placement of fertilizer to avoid it being washed off of fields by precipitation would achieve less than 30% total phosphorus reductions even if adopted across all row crop acreage in the Maumee River watershed, the main contributor of phosphorus pollution to western Lake Erie.  Data from the last few years suggests only 60% of farmers in the western Lake Erie basin using soil testing to determine nutrient application rates; only 25% have adopted subsurface placement of fertilizer; and only 20% utilize cover crops. These have all been identified as key practices to achieve the target of reducing phosphorus 40% by 2025.  There’s clearly a lot more ground to cover in the next seven years.

2) Voluntary steps and business-as-usual practices called for under the current “Action Plan” approach aren’t enough.

In a prime candidate for understatement of the year, U.S. EPA says that “implementing a suite of conservation practices on nearly every acre in the watershed through voluntary programs may not seem realistic or feasible.”   This is followed by an observation – stuck in a footnote – that, in order to reach the phosphorus reduction target for the Maumee River watershed alone, farmers would have to implement 770,000 acres of additional cover crops and more than a million additional acres of subsurface placement.  U.S. EPA proposes that could be achieved based on a survey showing there are enough farmers “willing to adopt” those conservation practices.  But that hope rings hollow when the same practices face real practical obstacles to adoption, such as the cost of equipment, lack of information, and other technical barriers.  Meanwhile, U.S. EPA’s own analysis of the annual phosphorus reductions that would be achieved by 2019 under “the key federal and state programs and projects at work in the basin” showed they’re actually on track to achieve only a third of the phosphorus reductions needed to meet the 40% target.  The search for new approaches to reducing phosphorus pollution continues; but in the meantime, it’s clear that, as ELPC Executive Director Howard Learner told the Wall Street Journal, “It’s time for the foot-dragging to come to an end” in moving forward with available solutions.

3) Climate change is making our job harder.

Although the Trump Administration’s Action Plan never mentions the term climate change, even the current U.S. EPA can’t ignore research showing that “precipitation and discharge has increased in the past decade, which accounts for ~35% of the increase in [phosphorus] loading since 2002.”  That trend is in keeping with predictions by U.S. EPA’s federal sister agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, that climate change has driven and will continue to drive increased rainfall in the Great Lakes region, especially in the spring.   The U.S. EPA Action Plan notes that this increased rainfall is a key variable in determining whether phosphorus control measures will be effective, since “annual load delivery is highly dependent on storm events.”  (That’s science-speak for “a lot more phosphorus gets washed into Lake Erie in years with big rainstorms.”)  Even the federal government’s optimistic assumptions about voluntary changes in farming practices won’t reduce phosphorus pollution enough in very wet years like 2011 and 2015, and climate change means we face even more of those years in the future.

There will inevitably be a lot of argument about these facts as Ohio tries to address harmful algal blooms on Lake Erie.  But they certainly point to valid questions about the adequacy of the current “Action Plan.”  I hope that Ohio and U.S. EPA will answer those questions with real facts going forward.

Wall Street Journal: Researchers Race to Thwart Toxic Algae Outbreaks

April 7, 2018
Researchers Race to Thwart Toxic Algae Outbreaks
By Kris Maher

Ed Weinberg thinks he has developed the best way to stop the toxic blooms of blue-green algae that have been fouling bodies of water from the Florida Everglades to the Great Lakes and beyond.

The algae feed on phosphorus from farms and wastewater treatment plants that makes its way into rivers and lakes. Mr. Weinberg’s solution deploys tiny beads of engineered resin that can absorb the mineral from water and extract it for reuse.

“It’s simple yet elegant chemistry,” said Mr. Weinberg, a chemical engineer who is among the finalists in a $10 million competition that is one of a number of both public and private efforts to solve a growing problem in U.S. waterways.

Researchers are racing to find solutions to outbreaks of blue-green algae that are increasing in frequency and severity. Carpets of stinking algae have sickened people and animals and hurt the fishing and tourism industries.

In 2014, the drinking water for nearly half a million people in Toledo, Ohio, was contaminated by the toxin microcystin produced by the algae.

“When you’re dealing with an issue as large and complex as we are right now, the more solutions the better,” said Christopher Winslow, who coordinates federal- and state-funded research into algal blooms at Ohio State University. He isn’t involved in the competition, which is privately run.

So far, research has been focused in four main areas, Mr. Winslow said: removing toxins from water, understanding how toxins affect the human body, understanding how blooms grow and preventing blooms in the first place.

Stopping the blooms is taking on more urgency. In March, the Environmental Protection Agency announced a plan to meet a goal of cutting phosphorus entering Lake Erie by 40% through voluntary efforts by 2025. Also last month, Ohio declared the shallow western basin of Lake Erie “impaired,” a step toward tighter regulations of phosphorus from farms and wastewater plants.

Algal blooms in Lake Erie were a problem in the 1960s. The blooms faded after regulations were implemented that required wastewater treatment plants to cut phosphorus.

But in the mid-1990s the blooms returned, and they have been surging more recently. Today, scientists point to farm runoff as a major cause of blooms.

For Lake Erie, the Maumee and Sandusky rivers are the greatest contributors of phosphorus, with 87% of phosphorus coming from sources that include farms. Environmental groups want tighter limits on use of fertilizer, which typically contains phosphorus.

“It’s time for the foot-dragging to come to an end,” said Howard Learner, president of the Environmental Law & Policy Center, based in Chicago, which sued the state of Ohio in federal court last year, arguing it should declare Lake Erie impaired. A ruling in that case is pending. “We know what causes it. It’s manure and excess fertilizer.”

Joe Cornely, a spokesman for the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation, said farmers are already taking steps to manage fertilizer more effectively. “We recognize that more needs to be done,” he said. “Our approach is, as soon as we figure out something that we know is going to work, let’s take that step.”

Researchers are exploring a variety of solutions. Some are working on ways to remove phosphorus from manure directly. Others are testing materials that could be inserted in drainage tiles under the soil on farms to remove phosphorus before it reaches rivers.

Mr. Weinberg, a 66-year-old from Richboro, Pa., outside Philadelphia, wanted a site with plenty of manure to test his technology last fall. He found a horse farm in Maryland with a pond thick with algae. He filled burlap sacks with his beads and put them in open crates, creating a makeshift filter in a drainage creek that flowed into the Chesapeake Bay.

He said he was able to replicate his lab results for removing phosphorus, and said there is no reason his technology couldn’t be applied at commercial farms in Ohio where phosphorus eventually makes its way into Lake Erie.

The competition in which he is a finalist is offering a $10 million prize for the best phosphorus-removal technology. It is sponsored by the nonprofit Everglades Foundation and the Scotts Miracle-Gro Foundation, a charitable organization affiliated with the fertilizer company.

The numbers of teams competing have been winnowed from more than 100 from 13 countries, to 10 from the U.S., Canada, the Netherlands and China, according to officials working on the competition.

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