Toledo Mayor D. Michael Collins sent a letter on Monday to President Obama, Gov. John Kasich, 18 members of the Great Lakes congressional delegation, and 10 members of the Ohio General Assembly that implores them to do whatever it takes financially to get Toledo through the 2014 algae season and to pass tougher laws that ensure the area‘s 500,000 residents aren’t left scurrying for bottled water again.
“We are calling upon President Barack Obama, the United States Senate, and the United States House of Representatives to take swift action to preserve our health and quality of life,” according to an excerpt of the letter provided to The Blade. “Toledo and many other cities impacted by this threat need additional resources, not only to make improvements to water treatment facilities but to minimize the economic impact insecurity that water quality concerns can create.”
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Mr. Collins announced his intent to send the letter during a meeting with The Blade’s editorial board and other top editors on Monday that lasted more than two hours. The mayor’s chief of staff, Bob Reinbolt, was also present.
Mayor Collins said he did not specify an amount of money needed nor advocate for specific legislation.
The mayor said he did not want to provide a copy of the one-page letter in its entirety before the 30 state and federal elected officials received theirs. But he agreed to release a two-paragraph excerpt, part of which was a call for additional resources “to be put into research to find ways to reduce or eliminate HABs [harmful algae blooms], as well as developing more cost effective and reliable methods of testing.”
“Our federal government cannot continue to pass along the costs of dealing with HABs to cities that have no ability to control the behavior of those outside of our authority who are contributing to poor water quality,” the letter states, an apparent reference to a multitude of impacts that include fertilizers from crop fields and manure spread on them that was generated by mega livestock facilities known as concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs.
During their lengthy discussion with The Blade, Mayor Collins and Mr. Reinbolt defended the city’s response to the unprecedented water crisis on Aug. 2-4. But they also conceded that now, in retrospect, there were some communication gaffes they do not intend to repeat if another such emergency arises.
“One of my major responsibilities was to protect this community from panic,” Mr. Collins said. “We didn’t have the most effective way of communicating with citizens and will do better.”
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Said Mr. Reinbolt: “I think we can agree we could have done a heck of a lot better job [of communicating].”
The two said they were taken aback by a front page story in Sunday’s Blade, in which Ohio Environmental Protection Agency Director Craig Butler and his deputy director for communication, Chris Abbruzzese, told the newspaper that the city had gotten so far behind on long-needed repairs to its Collins Park Water Treatment Plant that the Kasich administration had entertained the thought of attempting to take control of the facility away from Toledo, even at the risk of it being a political gamble during the gubernatorial campaign.
The Collins administration was aware of strong words Mr. Butler used in a June 9 letter to the mayor, in which the Ohio EPA director said the treatment plant appeared on the verge of imminent failure. But Mr. Collins said he thought the state agency was put at ease for the time being with a June 16 response from Ed Moore, the city’s public utilities director, when he acknowledged receipt of Mr. Butler‘s letter and pledged to address what the agency has called a list of “significant deficiencies.”
Mr. Butler didn’t say a word to city officials about the water plant on July 23, when he was in town for a whirlwind tour of water-quality projects ranging from Toledo’s sewage upgrades to a man-made wetland in Oregon that is designed by the University of Toledo.
The day began with Mr. Butler and other Ohio EPA officials meeting Mr. Collins and other city officials at Toledo’s Bay View wastewater treatment plant on Summit Street, where the metro area’s sewage gets processed.
“I never heard anything from Craig Butler or [Ohio EPA drinking and ground waters chief] Mike Baker after that June 16 response until what’s happened now,” Mr. Collins said.
“Not one word was said about Collins Park,” he added. “I had no reason to believe anything had gone awry.”
Ohio EPA documents obtained by The Blade at the end of last week showed a pattern of friction growing between the city and the EPA, with one agency staffer stating in an email that it appeared Toledo wasn’t telling the truth about some of the water system’s work. The same staffer said Toledo-based SSOE, one of the city’s engineering consultants, appeared reluctant to give its opinion about some of the work, possibly because it disagreed with the city’s approach.
Mr. Reinbolt conceded to Blade staffers at Monday’s meeting there had been “a relationship issue with the EPA.”
Both sides claim those issues are in the past and that they’re looking forward to a new beginning to address issues at the water plant.
And Mr. Collins defended Mr. Kasich, saying he never hesitated to give Toledo behind-the-scenes support during its water crisis, such as picking up the tab for emergency flights for water samples at testing laboratories.
The city recently began a $300 million upgrade, which includes plans for a new 40 million-gallon-a-day processing unit to be online by 2019 at a cost of $264 million.
Mayor Collins said the recent crisis at the water plant has also caused him to realign part of his leadership team.
Tim Murphy, the city’s environmental services commissioner, will replace David Leffler as the water plant’s commissioner, with Mr. Leffler announcing his resignation. Mr. Reinboilt, as chief of staff, will now directly oversee public utilities, and the city's assistant chief of staff, Joel Mazur, will oversee public service and safety, including oversight of the city's police and fire departments, with Mr. Mazur continuing to report to Mr. Reinbolt.
In the expansive interview with Blade editors, Mayor Collins talked about the immediate issues and challenges facing his administration's attempts to modernize the city’s water treatment plant while dealing with state environmental regulators. But, he was also honest about the city’s historic dysfunction when it comes to operation of the system that provides drinking water to 500,000 metro Toledo residents.
“There’s no mystery. We have a [73-year-old] plant and over the years there has been a failure of the political response to raise the water rates. It’s hard to sell water rate [increases], really it is,” Mayor Collins said. “And then you compound that problem, and I’ll be as blunt as can be, when you put political hacks in these positions and you make them directors of public utilities. You do a great disservice to one of the most important municipal operations we have in northwest Ohio, and that's our water system.”
Contact Tom Henry at: email@example.com or 419-724-6079.