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EPA Approves Ohio’s List of Unhealthy Waters, Ignoring Algae-Plagued Lake Erie

Kristy Meyer, May 23, 2017

Just weeks after conservation groups sued the U.S. EPA to make a decision on Ohio’s list of waters that don’t meet Clean Water Act standards, the EPA has approved Ohio’s list. The EPA issued a letter approving Ohio EPA’s impaired waters list on May 18, despite the list excluding the open waters of Lake Erie, which in recent years have been plagued by harmful algal blooms that have poisoned drinking water and harmed local businesses. The state of Michigan included the open waters of Lake Erie on its impaired waters list due to its frequent accumulation of toxic algae.
“EPA’s action preserves a status quo of insufficient action and lack of urgency in addressing one of the most vexing problems facing Lake Erie and the many people, communities, and businesses which rely on it for their drinking water, jobs, and way of life,” said Frank Szollosi, manager of regional outreach campaigns for the National Wildlife Federation. “This decision continues kicking the can down the road while Lake Erie and the people and wildlife depending on it wait for solutions.”
“By passing the buck back and forth, EPA and Ohio EPA are ducking the real issue that Ohio’s reliance on unenforceable, voluntary measures will not get the job done in addressing phosphorus pollution in Lake Erie,” said Madeline Fleischer, staff attorney for the Environmental Law & Policy Center.
“The waters of the Great Lakes are the most critical asset we have,” said Dan Eichinger, executive director of Michigan United Conservation Clubs. “We are disappointed in the EPA decision to all Ohio to keep the status quo. Michigan can’t address Lake Erie’s issues alone. There must be a collective action and commitment to solve it.”
“Ohio can and should do everything in it’s power to protect Lake Erie from the threat of toxic algae,” said Kristy Meyer, managing director of natural resources at the Ohio Environmental Council. “The status quo is clearly not working—in fact, it’s getting worse. We need those in power to do all they can to solve this problem.”
“By any measure, Western Lake Erie does not meet the Clean Water Act’s standards of fishable, drinkable, and swimmable for significant portions of the year. Today’s decision by U.S. EPA is a failure to protect the drinking water and recreational opportunities for people who live around the lake”, said Molly Flanagan, Alliance for the Great Lakes Vice President for Policy. “By refusing to reject Ohio’s faulty impaired waters list, the U.S. EPA is failing the people of Ohio who deserve better.”
“The suffering of over 400,000 not able to drink Toledo water and major losses in fishing in 2015 have failed to jolt USEPA and Ohio into action. USEPA and Ohio are refusing to declare the open waters of Lake Erie impaired under the Clean Water Act which would require measurements to tell us if the algae sources are increasing or decreasing.” says Sandy Bihn, Executive Director of Lake Erie Foundation.
Under the Clean Water Act, every two years states submit a list of impaired waters to the EPA, which the agency must by law accept or deny within 30 days. The process is instrumental in helping local communities, states, and the nation identify unhealthy waters so actions can be taken to improve the health of rivers, lakes and streams. Ohio’s submitted its list in October 2016. After the EPA refused to rule on it within that timeline, a coalition of businesses, conservation advocates, and sportsmen groups sued, asking a federal judge to order the agency to carry out its duty under the Clean Water Act.
In 2014, a harmful algal bloom poisoned drinking water for more than 400,000 people in Toledo. Ohio’s omission of Lake Erie itself from the list of unhealthy waters submitted to the U.S. EPA relieves the state from the obligation to effectively tackle the problem of harmful algal blooms in Lake Erie. Farm run-off is the top contributor to the resurgence of harmful algal blooms in Lake Erie, and one way to address that is through a federally approved plan to reduce runoff pollution into local rivers, streams and Lake Erie.
In November of 2016, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) listed its portion of the open waters of western Lake Erie as impaired under the federal Clean Water Act. Reacting to deteriorating water quality and the ongoing threat of harmful algal blooms in Lake Erie, the DEQ included the waters of the Great Lake that fall within Michigan’s borders in its report to the EPA.