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News that the Ohio EPA warned Toledo of “imminent vulnerability” at its water treatment facility sparked concerns about transparency by the city and questions about how committed city officials have been to fix known problems.
While city leaders say issues raised by the Ohio EPA were unrelated to last weekend’s water crisis, they acknowledge the plant needs significant work. State officials claim Toledo has lacked a sense of urgency in addressing its inadequate infrastructure. Sandy Bihn, founder of the Lake Erie Waterkeeper group, said many areas of the plant needed to be fixed.
“I’ve been hearing this for years, that the plant is in a substantially deteriorated condition,” she said. “I think Toledo has been lax, and it’s pretty obvious and I think it’s pretty serious.”
Ms. Bihn agrees with city claims Friday that the plant’s issues were not the cause of the water crisis. Unless they’re addressed, algae blooms will continue to threaten the water supply regardless of the water treatment plant’s condition.
“The real message here is that Lake Erie is in really bad condition and it desperately needs help,” she said.
That Lake Erie’s woes are the bigger concern does not mean, however, that the city’s failure to upgrade the water treatment plant and the rest of the system isn’t deplorable, many said. Councilman Lindsay Webb, chairman of the city’s utilities and public service committee, said she planned to have a committee hearing as soon as possible to get a briefing by city staff about the correspondences with state EPA officials who warned about the plant’s deficiencies months before the crisis.
“With respect to the correspondence and back and forth, there has not been transparency,” she said.
That lack of transparency perturbed many, who said Mayor D. Michael Collins and his team were bypassing city council and the public when dealing with major issues.
“I think the Collins administration has fallen into the trap of keeping things close to the vest,” said councilman and former mayor Jack Ford.
Public works administrators and consultants who have worked on the city’s water and sewer system for years should have known a crisis was imminent, he said.
Mr. Ford defended his own leadership when it came to Toledo’s water and sewer system, saying that he settled a longstanding dispute with the U.S. EPA in 2002 that resulted in the sewerage expansion project known as the Toledo Waterways Initiative.
He brought the project, and unpopular sewage rate increases that went with it, before voters.
Former Mayor Carty Finkbeiner also defended his work and the efforts of subsequent administrations to address the water system’s problems. Mr. Finkbeiner said he negotiated the consent agreement with the EPA, Mr. Ford brought the issue before voters, and former Mayor Mike Bell and Mr. Collins have tried to address its myriad elements.
The water plant, he said, is only part of the water system, and he said when he was mayor the city’s staff did not strenuously demand attention for its deficiencies.
Now isn’t the time to point fingers, he said, as everyone had a hand in failing to address Lake Erie’s sorry state.
“All of us have a responsibility to bear for this,” he said.
Mr. Finkbeiner said it’s important for a mayor to trust his team, and that he believed Mr. Collins would have taken the matter seriously if he’d been better aware of the situation.
He said he hoped the crisis would be used as an opportunity to immediately and effectively address Lake Erie’s problems.
Several Democratic state legislators defended Mayor Collins at a news conference Friday, and suggested that the Ohio EPA has fallen short in its duties as an oversight agency.
State Rep. Chris Redfern (D., Catawba Island) said the state environmental agency should have done more than just point out the problems at the Collins Park water plant, and should have provided funding to fix those problems.
“I don’t think it is wise for us to sit here and point the finger at any political person,” State Rep. Michael Ashford (D., Toledo) said.
“He had advance notice in June, and I assume he was addressing it at that point but, because of the climate and the algae blooms, it could have gotten out of hand for anybody in his seat.”
Reps. Redfern and Ashford, along with state Reps. Teresa Fedor (D., Toledo) and Michael Sheehy (D., Oregon), also called on Gov. John Kasich to take immediate action by releasing money from Ohio’s $2 billion dollar rainy-day fund to help Toledo and other Lake Erie shoreline communities deal with the 2014 algae-induced water crisis.
“The governor declared, rightly so, that this region is in a state of emergency. This is akin to a devastating tornado. This is not a question about money. The state has plenty of money. This is a time of action,” Mr. Redfern said.
To do so, the governor first would need to convene an emergency session of the Ohio General Assembly for a vote.
Ms. Fedor is also asking the governor to immediately declare the Maumee River region a distressed watershed.
That would allow the state to regulate the storage of animal manure, and would require commercial business and agricultural business to develop plans on how they dump nutrients and chemicals into the watershed, Ms. Fedor said.
The Maumee River is the largest Lake Erie tributary.
“We are going to fix it. I want to see tomorrow that they do something to fix it,” Ms. Fedor said.
Mr. Sheehy also believes the water crisis has changed the political climate in Ohio, so he plans to reintroduce legislation that would restrict large industrial farms from spreading manure on frozen or snow-covered ground, which would reduce the amount phosphorus going into the river system.
Mr. Kasich’s spokesman Rob Nichols said the governor is considering many options for addressing the water crisis.
“We appreciate their ideas and as we continue our after-action review of the events in Toledo, everything remains on the table,” he said.