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Published: Friday, 1/24/2014 - Updated: 7 months ago

Operators call for toxic algae guidelines

BY TOM HENRY
BLADE STAFF WRITER

It “really is unbelievable” there are no state and federal standards for routine detection of Lake Erie’s poisonous algae inside municipal water-treatment plants, Ottawa County Sanitary Engineer Kelly Frey said at a forum Thursday.

“It’s just so unusual for us to have to make judgment calls on something that is unregulated,” Mr. Frey said at an event sponsored by the Toledo Metropolitan Area Council on Governments and attended by about 75 people.

Mr. Frey was one of four operators of water-treatment plants in the western Lake Erie region on the panel who expressed concern about the rising levels of phosphorus in Lake Erie and what that has done to help grow the lake’s most prevalent form of algae, microcystis.

Classified as harmful blue-green algae, microcystis has a toxin called microcystin that is more potent than cyanide, Mr. Frey said.

The Blade learned in September, after Ohio had its first case of a municipal water-treatment plant forced into an emergency shutdown by the toxin — in Ottawa County’s Carroll Township — that there are no laws at the state and federal levels that require plants to test for the algae’s presence.

Mike Baker, chief of the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency’s drinking and ground waters division, said at the time that the Kasich administration has no plans to require such testing. The U.S. EPA said it was taking months studying microcystin and 115 other substances in water to determine which, if any, need to be regulated.

Several treatment plants along Ohio’s Lake Erie shoreline and its tributaries take it upon themselves to test voluntarily.

The toxin in microcystis killed 75 people in a kidney dialysis center in Brazil in 1996. But the science behind it is still emerging.

Only in recent years have scientists learned the toxin acts independently of the algae. It does not necessarily go away when the algae bloom fades, Andy McClure, administrator of Toledo’s Collins Park Water Treatment Plant, said.

Some chemicals used inside water plants for taste and odor control, such as potassium permanganate, actually might help microscopic algae cells divide and give off more toxin, Mr. McClure said.

Each plant has its own strategy to neutralize the toxin. One of the more effective — but expensive — products is powdered activated carbon, which Mr. McClure described as “our magic bullet.”

But state and federal regulators have not developed a standard protocol to remove the toxin, instead leaving it up to plant operators. Some health experts wonder if the World Health Organization limit of 1.0 parts per billion of microcystin in drinking water is conservative enough.

“There is no set way to remove this. We’re all experimenting with the processes we have,” Mr. Frey said. “We’re all fearful of the threat this has if it gets through and into our public water supply.”

Barry LaRoy, Monroe director of water and wastewater, agreed.

“There are no regulations out there,” Mr. LaRoy said. “We’re trying to do the best we can with the equipment we have.”

Toledo, which has spent $3 million a year battling algae toxins in recent years, spent $4 million in 2013.

Contact Tom Henry at:

thenry@theblade.com

or 419-724-6079.



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