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Fertilizer pollution fears bubble up in wake of Toledo water crisis

Experts say that lax rules for fertilizer and creeping climate change brought on algae bloom that tainted city’s taps

As residents of Toledo, Ohio, and the surrounding region recover from a weekend without access to usable tap water — the fault of a toxic algae bloom in Lake Erie — the crisis has set off new calls for stricter rules on the use the fertilizers that help contribute to the blooms.

The algae bloom set off alarms on Saturday, causing authorities to impose a ban on the use of the city’s tap water, which comes from Lake Erie, affecting more than 400,000 people in Toledo and surrounding areas in Ohio and southeastern Michigan. On Monday morning officials lifted the ban after new tests came back clean. But before the weekend was over, 69 people visited local hospitals fearing they had fallen ill, The Columbus Dispatch reported.

The type of algae found in the lake releases a toxin called microcystin, which can damage the liver and cause diarrhea, vomiting, dizziness and even nerve damage.

“It’s not good to drink,” said Christine Mayer, a professor of environmental science at the University of Toledo.

Mayer said these algae blooms have become more common. And the city’s water treatment plant, she added, wasn’t designed to handle the load. The chief culprit is fertilizer runoff from farms that flows into the Maumee River, which empties into Lake Erie.

For now, federal regulators don’t have a standard for acceptable levels of microcystin. So Toledo officials had to use the World Health Organization’s rule, which states that levels of the toxin should not exceed a minuscule amount.

“EPA has not established a standard for microcystin in drinking water. However, the agency has been evaluating this and other contaminants associated with algal blooms,” said Julia Ortiz, a spokeswoman for the Environmental Protection Agency, adding that it is “continuing to gather information to inform a determination whether to regulate these contaminants.”

The problem is relatively new, Mayer said, and it is taking regulators a while to catch up. “The EPA has not had enough time and experience to put together specific guidelines,” she said.

She added that Ohio hasn’t ignored the problem and is trying to solve it in earnest. “These algal blooms in Lake Erie have appeared in the last 10 or 12 years, and they’re kind of trending towards getting worse,” she said. “This is something the water treatment plants didn’t have to deal with 10 years ago, but they do now.”

The water crisis that struck Toledo bears some resemblance to the one that hit Charleston, West Virginia, in January, when a coal-processing chemical tainted drinking water for 300,000 people in the state’s capital and hard-to-reach places in hollows and valleys nearby.

Many blamed lax regulation of the state’s chemical industry for that spill, and some condemned the coal industry as well.

Maya Nye, head of West Virginia–based People Concerned About Chemical Safety, said the problem Ohio faces reflects the one in her state. “This crisis happened because we don’t think about the long-term impact of chemical use,” she said. “Just like in West Virginia, it’s a failure of our government to properly plan for the consequences of unchecked industry.”

Gary Wilson, a Chicago-based journalist who focuses on issues related to the Great Lakes, said that corporate opposition to new rules for farmers acts as a roadblock to reducing fertilizer pollution.

“The key players are going to have to get out of a defensive mode and get away from entrenched positions. There is clear indication we are going to have to regulate farmers’ activities,” he said.

Right now, state officials issue suggestions to farmers big and small on how to fertilize their crops in a way that lessens the risk to lakes, but Wilson says the recommendations need to be made mandatory.

Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, called for strong action in the wake of the Toledo water ban, as did other state politicians.

“I think it’s going to make everybody realize we’ve got to do better,” Brown said, according to the Dispatch. “I would hope that when 500,000 people lose their drinking water for a couple, three days, that it would have an impact on public policy not just in Ohio but around the country.”

The problem in Ohio is a particularly difficult one to solve, since the Maumee River spans hundreds of miles and crosses into Indiana — the largest watershed that flows into the Great Lakes.

“Since the Clean Water Act was passed in the U.S. in 1972, we have done a good job of regulating point sources of nutrient pollution,” Mayer said. “But fertilizer that is applied to farm fields is very diffused. It’s much harder to deal with.”

Although they have served as a sewer for industry and agriculture for hundreds of years, the Great Lakes stand as one of the continent’s most valuable resources. They provide water for as many as 30 million people in the U.S. and Canada and account for 84 percent of North America’s surface freshwater.

But the one-two punch of continuing fertilizer use and climate change has made the potential for dangerous algae blooms even greater. The algae thrive in warm water. And torrential rain, an increasingly common weather pattern in the region, can worsen fertilizer runoff.

A record-size bloom appeared in the lake in 2011, and in 2013 a town of 2,000 people, Carroll, just east of Toledo, faced a tap water ban because of algae pollution.

While climate change likely complicates the problem, the main issue is farming, said Lana Pollack, U.S. chair of the International Joint Commission, a group of Canadians and Americans tasked by a binational agreement with monitoring the water shared by the two countries.

“The primary factor of the most recent bloom is the same as it has been, and that is too much fertilizer put on the ground for crops but does not get absorbed,” she said. That ends up as runoff that “feeds the algal blooms in Lake Erie.”

“It is all avoidable,” said Pollack. “The science is there. We need the political will to enforce the science.”

With reporting by Ray Suarez

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