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Activist dumps algae-infested water, dead fish into downtown fountain

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    Mike Ferner dumps algae-tainted Lake Erie water and dead perch into the fountain as members of Advocates for a Clean Lake Erie protest at One Government Center on Friday.

    The Blade/Andy Morrison
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    CTY ALGAE23 A dead perch floats in the fountain after being thrown there as members of Advocates for a Clean Lake Erie during a protest at One Government Center, September 22, 2017. The Blade/Andy Morrison

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    CTY ALGAE23 Mike Ferner, Toledo, and other members of Advocates for a Clean Lake Erie during a protest at One Government Center, September 22, 2017. The Blade/Andy Morrison

    The Blade/Andy Morrison
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    CTY ALGAE23 Algae-tainted Lake Erie water and dead perch on display as members of Advocates for a Clean Lake Erie protest at One Government Center, September 22, 2017. The Blade/Andy Morrison

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Activist Mike Ferner dumped a pitcher of algae-infested water and two dead fish into One Government Center’s public fountain on Friday morning in what can be described as the latest act of civil disobedience on behalf of Lake Erie.

Mr. Ferner, joined by more than a dozen other members of the Advocates for a Clean Lake Erie group he founded in response to the 2014 Toledo water crisis, said the protest was in response to foot-dragging by local, state, and federal officials on the algae issue.

WATCH: Mike Ferner dumps a pitcher of water into public fountain

His point: Since the administrations of Toledo Mayor Paula Hicks-Hudson and Gov. John Kasich won’t call for the open water of Lake Erie to be designated as impaired, they - along with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency - are complicit in allowing manure and other farm fertilizers to pollute the water.

If the lake water’s so good, Mr. Ferner said as he emptied the pitcher of algae-infested water and two dead fish, they shouldn’t have a problem with it all being mixed together in the fountain.

“It’s not just the people spreading manure on the fields, but also the government officials who let them do it,” Mr. Ferner told the crowd. “You [public officials opposing the impairment designation] might be in denial that our lake is impaired, but we’re not.”

The middle-of-downtown spectacle wasn’t just in response to thick algae in the lake. It was equally in response to the recent formation of dense scums in the Maumee River, one so obvious and pervasive it prompted the Toledo Lucas County Health Department to issue its first-ever advisory against recreational contact portions of the river that flow through Toledo.

The local health department’s advisory remained in effect for a second day Friday, although Dave Welch, the agency’s environmental health director, said test results on samples drawn that morning showed the toxin level below 2 parts per billion - a tenth of the 20 ppb threshold the World Health Organization has established as a guideline for avoiding all contact. No samples were taken when the advisory - which spans from the Anthony Wayne Bridge downtown to Cullen Park in Point Place and a small portion of Swan Creek near the Erie Street Market - was issued Thursday.

Health Commissioner Eric Zgodzinski said new Ohio Department of Health protocols call for advisories to be issued once algal blooms are visually obvious. And, he said, the concentration doesn’t have to reach 20 ppb. Anything over 6 ppb can justify precautionary measures, he said. 

Mr. Zgodzinski said the health department will continue to monitor the river quality daily for at least a week.

RELATED: No-swimming advisory stays, but toxin level is safe

“I’m glad the bloom came to visit us,” Mr. Ferner said. “Maybe seeing it up close and personal will get people angry.”

He and his supporters held signs such as “More Chlorine Is Not the Answer,” a reference to heavy treatment going on at the city’s Collins Park Water Treatment Plant to neutralize algal toxins drawn into the plant. The city continued to say on its website Friday the toxin concentration at the plant’s intake, three miles into Lake Erie, remains less than 5 ppb, a concentration operators can easily remove, and that it remains too low to be detected in drinking water.

The mayor’s spokesman, Carrie Russell Hartman, said Ms. Hicks-Hudson was not commenting on Mr. Ferner’s accusations.

Nor was Joe Cornely, Ohio Farm Bureau Federation spokesman, who told The Blade only this: “We prefer to not react to stunts.” 

Heidi Griesmer, Ohio EPA spokesman, said the Kasich administration has made a number of policy and legislative reforms since the second-worst bloom in 2011, including a $2.5 billion investment in the Lake Erie watershed to improve drinking water infrastructure, wastewater, and other issues.

At the same time, Ohio “has made historic reforms to strengthen the protection of Lake Erie and reach agreements to achieve a recommended 40 percent reduction in phosphorus entering the lake,” Ms. Griesmer said.

The Ohio EPA - which has already designated some near-shore areas along the lake as impaired - is “not opposed to making impairment designations for the open waters of the lake when a science-based process for designation and delisting is available,” Ms. Griesmer said.

“We don’t believe, and U.S. EPA agrees, that the tools and measures currently exist to do so in a manner that is consistent, defendable and appropriate for the open waters,” she said.

Mr. Ferner’s group, with help from the Chicago-based Environmental Law & Policy Center, has a lawsuit in federal court that claims the lake’s western basin deserves the special consideration that would come with an impairment designation.  

One Government Center and its public foundation are maintained by the Ohio Department of Administrative Services, which had employees remove the dead fish moments after Mr. Ferner’s rally ended. Tom Hoyt, Ohio DAS spokesman, said the agency has decided it will not pursue the matter.

Lucas County commissioners took the occasion to renew their position that Lake Erie’s open water should be designated as impaired.

In a statement several hours after the rally, the board said it found the recent formation of algae in the Maumee River “particularly distressing” and something that has “rarely, if ever happened.”

They and Frank Szollosi, a former city councilman now working for both the National Wildlife Federation and the county commission, noted the river bloom came only weeks after the opening of ProMedica’s downtown headquarters and the reopening of Promenade Park were supposed to signal a rebirth for downtown.

“Now, more than ever, we need decisive action from our public partners at the federal government and the state of Ohio,” county commissioners said.

No blooms were found in the Ottawa River during a quick survey done by the local health department, Mr. Welch said.

The Maumee River bloom threatened a cancellation or postponment of the Toledo Rowing Club’s 2017 ProMedica Frogtown Regatta, in which hundreds of rowers are expected to compete Saturday morning. But the Toledo Rowing Club, after consulting with the local health department, said the event will move forward as scheduled along the river, contact advisory and all.

Rowers are urged to wash their skin, Mr. Zgodzinski said. In its statement, the regatta said it will provide rinsing stations.

Joe Mollen, 61, a retired Toledo firefighter, said he and other members of Mr. Ferner’s group are meeting in the parking lot of the Best Buy on Monroe Street at 9 a.m. Sunday to pull their own water samples of area ditches, starting in Fulton County. The samples will be sent off to a laboratory for analysis, Mr. Mollen said. 

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

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