Caucus hears Lake Erie, water crisis testimony

Ohio Rep. Fedor: ‘‍Lake Erie is on a death knell'

8/15/2014
BY TOM HENRY
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Chris Redfern
Chris Redfern

A special Lake Erie Legislative Caucus hearing called to discuss the Toledo water crisis drew a standing room only crowd at  Maumee Bay State Park today, with 13 members of the Ohio General Assembly in attendance to hear testimony.

Sen. Randy Gardner
Sen. Randy Gardner

Co-chair Chris Redfern, a Democratic state representative from Catawba Island, opened the event by saying he considers the algae-induced problems with Toledo's water supply "the greatest crisis, the greatest challenge facing the Great Lakes."

Rep. Teresa Fedor
Rep. Teresa Fedor

The other co-chair, Randy Gardner, a Republican state senator from Bowling Green, sized up the crowd and said this: "Usually, legislative caucus hearings last one or two hours. Clearly, this one's going to last a lot longer."

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Ohio Rep. Teresa Fedor (D., Toledo) equated the stern Aug. 2-5 warning against drinking or making body contact with Toledo's tap water to a Grade B horror movie that took her by surprise when she woke up the morning it began.

"It was something unbelievable. It was like something out of a movie. It has changed everyone's life in Toledo," Ms. Fedor said. "We don't need to study the studies. We need to act. Lake Erie is on a death knell."

The hearing's first testimony to the crowd of 250 people was delivered by Adam Rissien, Ohio Environmental Council agricultural and policy director, who urged legislators to declare the Maumee River a "distressed watershed" and get tougher with regulations for protecting Lake Erie.

"No committee, especially a modern American city, should have to worry about water," Mr. Rissien said. "We must not lose sight of the fact that [Toledo's long-overdue] infrastructure improvements address the symptoms, but they are not a cure."

Declaring the Maumee River a distressed watershed would make it easier for regulators to impose tougher rules on the agricultural industry for its fertilizer runoff, the largest source of algae-feeding phosphorus, Mr. Rissien said.

Tony Yankel, Ohio Lakefront Group. Inc., an organization best known for defending private property rights along the Ohio Lake Erie shoreline, described the Toledo water crisis as a modern version of the "infamous burning of the Cuyahoga River," a high-profile 1969 event that helped inspire the national Clean Water Act and led to the 1972 Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement between the United State and Canada, both landmark acts in the development of modern sewage treatment era.

Mr. Redfern said he's tired of the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency pointing out deficiencies in the Toledo water plant when the state and federal EPA have both failed to ever set a firm testing requirement for Lake Erie water treatment plant operators.

"The Ohio EPA is critical of the [Collins Park Water Treatment Plant], but there is no state testing requirement," Mr. Redfern said. "Attacking a system for not coming up with a protocol? That responsibility rests squarely with the Ohio EPA and the U.S. EPA."

Until recently, there was no standardized testing protocol.

As a result of the Toledo water crisis, the Ohio EPA, Toledo and other plant operators have come to a consensus on how testing should be done.

But the U.S. EPA has not developed a national testing protocol.

And, as Mr. Redfern noted, there still continues to be no state or federal law requiring water treatment plant operators to test for toxic microcystis algae.

Banning winter application of manure is a "no-brainer" to improve protection of the Maumee River and Lake Erie watersheds, Bill Myers of the Ohio Farm Bureau, said.

David Spangler, the Lake Erie Charter Boat Association's 2014 Captain of the Year, said he and other charter boat captains hoped last September's temporary algae-induced shutdown of Ottawa County's Carroll Township water treatment plant - a first for Ohio - would have been the worst episode.

"We were hoping that would be the end of the situation, but it obviously has mushroomed to something much bigger," Mr. Spangler told legislators.

Mr. Spangler, a Carroll Township resident, was asked if he feels confident that water plant - which serves 2,000 people and is one of Ohio's smallest - will never have another shutdown.

"No," he said, relaying visual observations of how winds and waves push the algae around. "It's only under eight feet of water, whereas Toledo's is under 13 feet of water."

Contact Tom Henry at: thenry@theblade.com or 419-724-6079 or via Twitter @ecowriterohio.