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Lake Erie’s annual algae blooms can carry harmful toxins into public drinking water treatment plants, but facilities aren’t specifically required to test for the toxins.
To combat the toxins, many water treatment facilities along Lake Erie’s Western Basin, from Lorain, Ohio, to Monroe, are cooperating with the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency by testing voluntarily for microcystin, a toxin in microcystis, the lake’s most prevalent form of harmful blue-green algae.
Algal blooms are a result of high levels of phosphorus in the water attributed to runoff from agricultural fertilizer, manure, sewage overflows, and septic systems. The toxin can cause breathing problems, skin reactions, and liver damage, and large enough quantities can even be deadly.
State code requires that public drinking water systems plan for at least 10 of the “most likely emergencies” and provide descriptions of response procedures and how to maintain service during those emergencies. But many plants do not list algal toxins among those common emergencies.
“They get to choose what emergencies to plan for,” Dina Pierce, an Ohio EPA spokesman, said to explain why some plants have algae plans in place and others don’t.
Likely emergencies differ from plant to plant depending on location and other factors, but now, in formal regulations’ absence, the state EPA is urging all treatment plants to use surface water test for microcystin and update their contingency plans to prepare for the toxin.
Some water departments, including in Toledo and Ottawa County, are drafting new plans they hope to have ready by the typical mid to late July start of algae season, while others suggested that their existing plans are sufficient to address the toxin threat.
Certain operators have decided algae-specific plans are unnecessary because any contingency plan would contain some of the same basic elements: telling customers not to use the water; isolating alternative sources, such as bottled water, uncontaminated water towers, or a neighboring, unaffected water plant; and monitoring toxin levels until they are eliminated.
“My standard contingency plan pretty much covers every possible contingency you can think of,” Doug Wagner, Oregon’s superintendent of water treatment, said.
Testing is the first step in identifying an algal toxin threat and many communities have begun voluntarily sampling their water in the absence of a regulation.
“Us and all the other water systems along Lake Erie were very proactive,” Mr. Wagner said, adding that Oregon has been testing its water since 2010 and even tests samples for other communities.
That kind of partnership means they have long been prepared for the toxin threat, he said.
Microcystis, however, has been appearing almost annually in Lake Erie since 1995 — 15 years before testing became common.
The state EPA recommends weekly sampling of raw source water to screen for blue-green algae. If any amount of toxin is detected in water after it has been treated, Ms. Pierce said, plants should sample their treated water daily. If the toxin exceeds the World Health Organization’s danger threshold of 1 part per billion, the EPA suggests a “Do Not Drink” or “Do Not Use” advisory.
Ohio EPA assists treatment plants with testing by monitoring algae, sending out alerts to treatment plants, and hosting monthly conference calls with plant operators. It also takes samples for water systems that cannot afford to, but not for those that can afford their own testing.
Testing leads to costs — the state EPA has spent $31,145 since 2010 on testing alone — but the larger price comes from methods to neutralize the toxins once they are detected.
Carroll Township has spent about $225,000 this year on upgrades including new ozone generators that inject ozone into the water during pretreatment to oxidize any organics present, said Henry Biggert, the plant superintendent.
The upgrades are the result of a near miss — the township briefly shut down its water plant in September after Mr. Biggert detected 3.56 parts per billion of microcystin in the plant’s treated water, more than three times the danger threshold established by the World Health Organization.
The shutdown has been described as an “eye-opener,” but also as an anomaly since Carroll Township’s is the only facility to have ever detected such high levels of toxins in its treated water.
Following the shutdown, residents spent two days drinking bottled water until safe drinking water could be restored, but Mr. Biggert is confident the ozone generators will do their part to avoid future contamination.
“We feel that the ozone is one of the better treatments for the toxin, so we concentrated on that,” he said.
A more common method of toxin elimination is to use chemicals like activated carbon, which helps control the water’s taste and odor in addition to shielding it from toxins. Many facilities use activated carbon regardless of whether algal toxins are present, but eliminating the toxins requires an increase in carbon use, which is expensive.
“Last year I think we put together a breakdown and it was about $11,000 a month,” Ron Wetzel, the Ottawa County Regional Water Plant superintendent, estimated his plant spent during the 2013 algae season on carbon and other chemicals. That amount did not cover additional staffing and other costs the plant experiences during algae season.
Last year the plant absorbed the cost with no rate increase, but starting in January, the water plant raised rates 4.5 percent, representing an increase from $21 to $22 on the minimum monthly bill. Starting Tuesday, the average Carroll Township water bill will rise from $34.20 to $36 per month, but Mr. Biggert said some of the increase would have been needed even without the algae problem.
Not every water utility is raising its prices to compensate for rising treatment costs, however.
Mr. Wagner said Oregon will have no rate increase this year because the additional costs are manageable for the few months-long algae season.
Oregon spent about $3,000 for extra chemicals at the algae blooms’ peak last year, plus the cost of testing, he said. Oregon shares its testing-equipment expenses with Carroll Township, Ottawa County, and Monroe to reduce the cost burden for all.
The cost of chemicals like activated carbon has risen as water plants’ use to treat toxins has grown, but more research is needed to determine the most efficient balance of chemicals.
“If microcystin comes through activated carbon, it’s going to remove it,” said Justin Chaffin, the research coordinator at Ohio State University’s Stone Lab Research Center. But Mr. Chaffin acknowledged that the question driving current research is exactly how much carbon to use.
The Ohio EPA has no plans to develop regulations related to the toxins, preferring to follow the federal EPA’s lead. The U.S. EPA has taken initial steps toward monitoring algal toxins to determine whether to regulate them, but a representative was unable to provide a timetable for when rules might be drafted.
“Usually they’re way out in front of us telling us, ‘You need to do this,’ but I think this one caught them flat-footed,” Kelly Frey, the Ottawa County sanitary engineer, said of the EPA.
“When the blue-green algae comes into the plant we turn all the knobs up,” Mr. Frey said.
He doesn’t want to take the risk of not using enough carbon, but he may be increasing his costs by using more of the chemical than he needs to.
Mr. Frey explained plant operators don’t have time to do in-depth research during the algae season when they are working daily simply to fight the toxins. Many Lake Erie cleanup efforts focus on the region’s multibillion-dollar tourism and fishing industries, he noted, rather than drinking-water safety.
What neutralizing toxins in the water doesn’t accomplish is treating their cause.
“The ultimate goal is preventing the blooms from happening in the first place,” Mr. Chaffin said.
Contact Stephen Gruber-Miller at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6050, or on Twitter @sgrubermiller.