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Toledo Blade: Federal plan calls for phosphorus reductions to improve Lake Erie water

Toledo Blade:Federal plan calls for phosphorus reductions to improve Lake Erie water

Washington, DC, March 13, 2018

A “final” version of a federal Action Plan for reducing phosphorus loading into Lake Erie reiterates a goal of reducing it 40 percent by 2025 and describes an array of potential measures to get there.

But critics said the report includes no consequences should the 40 percent goal not be met, rendering it toothless.

“The plan has been strengthened in some substantive ways,” but it lacks the sort of “accountability framework” that EPA included when it developed a similar Action Plan to address pollution in Chesapeake Bay, said Frank Szollosi, a former Toledo city councilman who is now the Great Lakes Campaign manager for the National Wildlife Federation.

“We can’t just continue to assume and hope that these voluntary mechanisms are going to do what’s necessary to prevent another Toledo water crisis,” Mr. Szollosi said.

“Though we welcome support from U.S. EPA to combat harmful algal blooms, this plan does not reflect the urgency or accountability we need in this fight,” U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D., Toledo) said in a prepared statement. “This first step must be followed by actions on the state and federal level to meet the plan’s reduction targets.”

U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell (D., Dearborn), meanwhile, called the report “a step in the right direction” but said Lake Erie’s full remediation “requires an impairment designation by EPA.”

A spokesman for U.S. Rep. Bob Latta (R., Bowling Green) said he was unavailable because he was in committee all day and had not had a chance to review the report.

Phosphorus from agricultural fertilizers is widely blamed as a primary nutrient for microcystis algae that have turned western Lake Erie into sickly green soup during several recent summers. The algae release microcystin toxin, the concentration of which in Toledo’s public water supply became so high for parts of three days in early August, 2014, the city issued orders that the water not be used for drinking, cooking, or bathing.

Michigan in 2016 declared its Lake Erie waters to be impaired under the Clean Water Act, but the state of Ohio so far has declined to do so — although the U.S. EPA in January ordered the state EPA to provide additional information about Lake Erie’s exclusion from its 2016 list of Ohio’s impaired waterways.

The federal EPA’s reluctance to make such a declaration of its own in response to Lake Erie’s recurring algal blooms is the subject of an ongoing federal lawsuit.

The Environmental Law and Policy Center and Advocates for a Clean Lake Erie suit seeks an order directing the federal agency to declare western Lake Erie to be impaired.

Among the most effective measures the new U.S. Environmental Protection Agency plan cites — because it has the added benefit of reducing farmers’ operating expenses — is more careful use of fertilizer to target land low in plant nutrients.

The plan also addresses, among other things, the use of “cover crops” to extract phosphorus from soil between cash-crop plantings and installation of filtering systems in field tile to extract dissolved phosphorus before drained water dumps into ditches and streams.

The report, released Wednesday, “basically verifies what we’ve known for a long time” about phosphorus-reduction methods, said Joe Cornely, a spokesman for the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation.

“We want to do our part to clean up farm-nutrient runoff,” he said. “At the same time, we don’t know for sure what works. There is no ‘Flip the switch and this will make the problem better.’”

U.S. District Judge James Carr heard oral arguments in the related court case for three hours Tuesday. Outside the court, a handful of activists gathered in a picket line.

On Wednesday, ACLE spokesman Mike Ferner said the parties had been informed by the judge’s clerk that a ruling is likely in about a week.

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