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Critics say new Ohio law isn't enough to protect Lake Erie from fertilizer runoff

Mark Brush
Michigan Radio

The recent Toledo water crisis has farmers in Michigan and Ohio on the defensive. They’re pointing to a number of voluntary efforts they’re making to reduce phosphorus runoff to Lake Erie. That runoff is the main food source for the blooms of a kind of cyanobacteria that release a toxin that led to the water shutdown. But farm groups and environmentalists say a new state law in Ohio that will certify the use of fertilizers doesn't go far enough or happen fast enough. 

"Basically, the new law will require that all farmers and certified crop advisors who spread chemical fertilizer on fields go through a certification process where they will learn how to spread the fertilizer in the right place, at the right rate, at the right time of year," says Karen Schaefer, an Ohio reporter who is covering this issue. "And the problem with it is: right now it does not include manure and the law does not go into effect until 2017."

"The problem with it is: right now it does not include manure and the law does not go into effect until 2017."

Schaefer says that in the meantime, many farmers and farm groups have expressed a willingness to start the certification process sooner.

"The Ohio Farm Bureau says it will take its Lucas County members into a series of meetings where they can learn what it is they need to be doing," Schaefer says. An Ohio State University extension agent is setting up three meetings with farmers in the region before harvest this year "...so that they can start reducing phosphorus before the spring happens and the bloom starts being fed," she says.

Lack of federal standards 

The kind of bacteria that are blooming in Lake Erie produce a toxin called microcystinand that toxin can be very dangerous to people and pets. However, cities have various methods of treating the affected water so it is safe to drink.

"Right now, they are basically doing what they've always done to treat water. The process of settling usually removes most of the toxin and some [cities] have added activated carbon which helps to pull out even more of the cyanobacteria," Schaefer says.

She says one city's water system has created a half-million dollar ozone treatment.

But Schaefer argues the biggest problem is there's no federal standard for how to remove the toxin from the water. There's also no federal standard for what level of microcystin is safe in drinking water — only the World Health Organization has a standard. The U.S. EPA has yet to create one.

So this means communities are left on their own to figure out how to treat their water. While the state of Ohio has offered $150 million in no-interest loans to fix water treatment issues, "the water plant managers really aren't sure what they should be doing and aren't really ready to apply for that money," says Schaefer.

Support for Karen Schaefer's “Year of the Lake “ series is provided by the Ohio Sea Grant College Program at Ohio State University.

Rebecca Williams is senior editor in the newsroom, where she edits stories and helps guide news coverage.
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