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EPA official notes planes scan for farm violations

Surveillance revealed at Great Lakes summit concerning algae

CHICAGO — Note to corporate agriculture: The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has inspectors in the sky looking down at you.

Susan Hedman, the EPA’s Midwest regional administrator, said Thursday night at a Great Lakes conference her agency has had inspectors in small planes the last three years looking for manure-management violations by large livestock operations known as concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs.

Ms. Hedman declined to provide specifics, saying the occasional flyovers are an enforcement tool. But she said the federal EPA has found it useful in taking legal action against some CAFOs with large manure releases, and sees expansion potential. The surveillance is not spying: The agriculture industry is notified in advance when the agency will be flying in the Great Lakes region, she said.

“That’s a very good use of inspector time,” Ms. Hedman told The Blade following her presentation.

The event, a two-day Great Lakes symposium sponsored by Chicago’s Environmental Law & Policy Center, drew a large Ohio contingent and put last August’s algae-induced Toledo water crisis at center stage. It concluded Friday.

“It was the nightmare we all had,” Ohio EPA Director Craig Butler said as he recalled the water crisis, prompted by an algal toxin called microcystin that for three days crippled a water distribution system serving nearly 500,000 metro Toledo residents.

“It was as much about failing infrastructure as it was about water quality. But water quality was the root of the problem,” Mr. Butler said.

The Ohio General Assembly on Wednesday passed a ban on spreading manure on frozen ground as part of legislation that also calls for the Army Corps of Engineers to phase out by 2020 the open-lake disposal of dredged sediments from shipping channels.

Mr. Butler said he expects Gov. John Kasich to sign the bill.

He said the governor threatened to veto the final version if it too closely mirrored the Ohio House of Representatives version, which was seen as having enforcement loopholes. The version that emerged from conference committee more closely resembled the Ohio Senate version, which Mr. Butler said the Ohio EPA supports.

The state EPA director had strong words for Ohio’s agriculture industry, saying it “will talk up front about how they are great stewards of the environment,” then lobby for softer measures. He said delicate negotiations were “more about shaming” certain legislators into supporting a more meaningful law.

Lana Pollack, U.S. chairman of the International Joint Commission, a federal State Department-level agency that helps the United States and Canada resolve boundary-water issues, called Ohio’s new law “very flawed, incomplete and [yet] a great step forward.”

The IJC and others have called for a 40 percent reduction in phosphorus releases from farms in the western Lake Erie watershed.

“We’re not tinkering around the edges here. We’re talking about some very, very big changes we’ll need to make if we’re going to achieve a 40 percent reduction,” said Don Scavia, a University of Michigan Great Lakes researcher.

Just as the conference began, the U.S. EPA announced $17 million of Great Lakes Restoration Initiative grants to help combat algae.

Ohio will get almost $8 million of it, mostly for western Lake Erie. The rest is for Michigan’s Saginaw Bay and Wisconsin’s Green Bay.

The grants are in addition to $19 million announced earlier for the western Lake Erie watershed. The latest round will be used mostly to install more drainage-control structures on farms, convert 270 acres of cropland into wildlife habitat, restore 70 acres of wetlands along the Maumee River, and restore six miles of streams.

Howard Learner, ELPC executive director, said the law center is seeking proposals for a major study that will attempt to quantify, for the first time, the short-term and long-term economic and taxpayer impacts of last August’s Toledo water crisis.

Doug Busdeker, a general manager of The Andersons Inc. in Maumee, said agriculture got a “black eye” from the water crisis, but is doing more to curb releases through an incentive program and adhering more to scientific solutions.

“We all know agriculture is a big piece,” Mr. Busdeker said. “The Toledo water crisis really raised the intensity in the agricultural community.”

John Dickert, the mayor of Racine, Wis., jokingly said every city should have its water shut off for a day to empathize with Toledo.

“Until people turn on that faucet and it doesn’t come out, they don’t care,” Mr. Dickert said. “It not [about] algal blooms. It’s about poisonous water.”

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

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