Monday, Apr 23, 2018
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Instead of telling Toledo how to run its water plant, the Kasich administration should focus on cleansing Lake Erie

This month’s water-safety crisis in Toledo makes clear that operations and conditions must improve at the city’s Collins Park water treatment plant. That is the urgent duty of Mayor D. Michael Collins’ administration, which must show it has a sound, timely plan of upgrades.

Yet the problems at the water plant must not be allowed to obscure the larger issue of the public-health emergency: the need to take immediate, thorough measures to cleanse Lake Erie of the algae generating the toxin that poisoned the city’s water supply. That is largely the responsibility of Gov. John Kasich.

His administration won’t address that imperative by focusing on specific problems with Toledo’s water system, however troubling. For Lake Erie’s toxic pollution is not merely a Toledo concern, but also a statewide, regional, and international matter.

An engaged governor could call the General Assembly into special session right now, and propose to lawmakers a list of emergency measures that would reduce the levels of algae-feeding phosphorus in Lake Erie and its tributaries. Recognizing the stakes, he would be willing to offend Columbus lobbies, special-interest groups, and campaign contributors who might resist such measures.

Will that happen? A week after Toledo’s crisis, the prospects aren’t encouraging.

Last week, the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency gave The Blade all sorts of documents about the city water plant. (Aside: The Kasich administration didn’t move nearly so quickly on public-records requests from The Blade when the issue was, say, the state inspector general’s report on Tom Noe.)

The documents included a June 9 letter in which Ohio EPA’s director, Craig Butler, told Mayor Collins: “I cannot underscore boldly enough the precarious condition of Toledo’s drinking water system and the imminent vulnerability to failure.” Mr. Butler told The Blade he had considered seeking a state takeover of the water treatment plant.

On Monday, Mayor Collins told The Blade’s editorial board that he had met twice with Mr. Butler and other Ohio EPA officials after he received the letter, and believed the city and state were working toward a resolution. He said that state officials, including Governor Kasich, did not express concerns about the water plant during visits to Toledo in the weeks before the emergency.

Before it contemplates running the Collins Park plant, Governor Kasich’s administration could more usefully work to reduce levels of phosphorus in Lake Erie. Such pollution is mostly a product of runoff of fertilizer and manure into the lake and its tributaries from farming and livestock operations.

The governor could seek to prohibit the spreading of manure on frozen or snow-covered ground, as the International Joint Commission proposes. His state Department of Natural Resources could declare the Maumee River watershed a “distressed” body of water, subjecting producers in the watershed to tougher rules on their acquisition and use of fertilizer and manure.

State government could provide financial aid to local communities to help them upgrade their water and sewer systems, preventing the dumping of raw sewage in Lake Erie during heavy storms. Mayor Collins said Monday he is asking Washington and Columbus for more money to address the city’s water issues.

Columbus could strengthen the permitting process for septic systems, to monitor their discharges better. It could prohibit phosphorus in fertilizers for residential and business, as opposed to agricultural, use.

Mr. Kasich could put more money in his budget for algae research. He could lean on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to end, not merely reduce, the open dumping into Lake Erie of dredged sediment from the Toledo shipping channel and similar harbors.

Such measures would be opposed by lobbies representing agri-business and big concentrated animal feeding operations, and others who disdain regulation. Such groups are among the major supporters — and benefactors — of Republican elected officials in Columbus.

As a result, actions taken by state government to address algae pollution in Lake Erie aren’t getting the job done. A new state law requires most farmers to certify they have achieved a prescribed level of knowledge of fertilizer application. But the law doesn’t take full effect for three more years; the state Agriculture Department has yet to write the rules to enforce it. At best, its oversight provisions are inadequate.

Some state lawmakers now are pledging to interrupt their re-election campaigns long enough to hold hearings on Toledo’s water emergency. More talking isn’t good enough. It’s time for action.

The threat to Toledo and Lake Erie isn’t over. This year’s algae blooms may not peak until next month. After that, there’s next year to worry about, and the next, and the next.

The pollution of Lake Erie needs to be addressed — and resolved — now. Governor Kasich, who has properly described Lake Erie as Ohio’s “crown jewel,” can set an example of productive leadership, if the issue is important enough to him. If it isn’t, voters will know that well before the November election.

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