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House measure makes strides to reduce Lake Erie toxic algae, improvements still needed

Adam Rissien, March 13, 2015

OEC cites enforcement loopholes

The Ohio House of Representatives today approved a measure (Substitute House Bill 61) to reduce farm field runoff of fertilizer and livestock manure into the western basin of Lake Erie. Among other provisions, the bill restricts applications of manure and fertilizer to frozen, snow-covered, and saturated ground, as well as when the weather forecast calls for heavy rain.

The bill passed today makes strides to reduce the threat of western Lake Erie’s harmful algae, and represents the agricultural industry’s willingness to be part of the solution by accepting new rules. Still, the Ohio Environmental Council has concerns about enforcement loopholes that jeopardize the bill’s good protections, especially from improper manure applications.

Unlike similar legislation passed last month by the Ohio Senate and proposed by Gov. John Kasich in his budget bill, the House measure places limits on the chief of the ODNR soil and water division’s ability to uphold the otherwise good protections.

Phosphorus and nitrogen from farm field runoff, urban storm-water overflows, poorly functioning household septic tanks and other sources feed harmful algae that increasingly plague western Lake Erie and many of Ohio’s inland lakes.

Under the House measure, the soil and water chief must send written notice of the deficiencies leading to the violation, set a timeframe for the violations to cease, and then conduct an inspection to verify if a person is still violating the law before taking any enforcement action.

“We certainly support measures that help farmers follow the rules, but this loophole lets violators off the hook entirely,” explains Adam Rissien, Director of Agricultural and Water Policy with the Ohio Environmental Council. “By the time the chief goes back to conduct an inspection, it is unlikely the ground will be snow-covered, frozen, or saturated, and certainly the weather forecast will be different.”

Additionally, the House measure offers violators the opportunity to avoid any penalties simply by requesting assistance from the chief, a soil and water conservation district or a qualified individual–but not necessarily to actually develop a plan or take action to cease the violation.

“In a well-intentioned effort to provide assistance for farmers who want to comply with the law, but may need time or additional resources, the bill creates the option for violators to simply ask for help in order to avoid any penalty; it offers no assurances that violators will actually keep the manure spreader in park.” said Rissien.

Besides these new enforcement hurdles, the substitute bill retains a problematic definition for the violations themselves that allows someone to spread manure or fertilizer under restricted circumstances repeatedly for 30 days and receive only a single penalty.

“If a person intends to ignore the law, this definition encourages an even more egregious violation,” states Rissien. “Each time someone breaks the law, it should count as a single violation.”

Similar to Senate Bill 1 approved last month by the Ohio Senate, Sub. HB 61 also includes a number of exemptions that allow spreading manure and fertilizer when injected or incorporated (tilled) into the soil, as well as for applications to growing crops.

“The growing crop exemption is ripe for abuse,” explained Rissien. “The provision is understandable; plants need nutrients to grow. But there should be some direction that prevents excess applications.”

“Certainly the House and Senate bills are heading in the right direction, but we need to close the loopholes,” said Rissien. “Every day we wait to reduce the amount of phosphorus flowing into Lake Erie, the problem becomes harder and more costly to solve.”

Lake Erie is a foundation of health, economic vitality, and recreation for millions of Ohioans.  Unique among the Great Lakes, Lake Erie is the shallowest, warmest and most biologically productive.  The Lake supports one of the largest freshwater commercial fisheries in the world and the largest sport fishery in the Great Lakes, producing more fish for human consumption than the other four Great Lakes combined.

Each year more than seven million people flock to Ohio’s portion of Lake Erie to watch wildlife, fish, hunt, and create family memories. As a result, more than $12.9 billion in travel and tourism revenue is generated each year and $1.7 billion in federal, state, and local taxes, supporting more than 119,000 direct jobs. Travel and tourism is a $40 billion industry in Ohio, nearly a third of that comes from the seven counties along the Lake.

Lake Erie, however, is not only a unique ecosystem that provides habitat for wildlife and recreational opportunities, but it also supports heavy manufacturing, commerce, and farming.

While it does so much for us, it desperately needs our help to ensure that the residents of greater Toledo will never again wake up to “do not drink” the water advisories as they did the weekend of Aug 2, 2014.