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Miller says EPA, cities need to do more to fight toxic blooms

Mark Brush
Michigan Radio

Michigan Congresswoman Candice Miller says the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency needs to do more to help cities deal with toxic cyanobacteria blooms in Lake Erie.

"Particularly when they see something where you have an entire region could not utilize their own drinking water supply," says Miller, referring to a two-day shutdown of Toledo's water supply in August. 

Toledo officials shut down the water system, after detecting a high level of  microcystin in the water.

Microcystin is one of the toxins created by cyanobacteria, an organism that looks very similar to blue-green algae. 

Miller has co-sponsored the Drinking Water Protection Act, which would require the EPA to develop a strategic plan to assess and manage the risks associated with harmful toxins in drinking water.

That plan would include determining what level of microcystins and other toxins are safe, and guidance for cities on how frequently to monitor for the toxins and on ways to mitigate the risks.

Miller says long-term, the solution is to reduce the amount of nutrients flowing into Lake Erie, as well as other Great Lakes.

Miller praised the efforts of the Michigan Agriculture Environmental Assurance Program. That's a voluntary program farmers can participate in to learn how to reduce phosphorus run-off from their fields.   Phosphorus is one of the nutrients known to encourage the growth of cyanobacteria.

But Miller says there hasn't been the same effort from cities to reduce sewage overflows. Sewage can also contribute to the problem of cyanobacteria blooms.

Many Michigan cities on the lakes still have combined storm water and sewer systems. Those systems can become overwhelmed during heavy rainstorms, leading to untreated sewage being dumped into the lakes.

'The amount of combined sewer overflows that get into our Great Lakes is totally, totally unacceptable," says Miller.

She admits the cost of separating storm water and sewer systems is huge.

But she still thinks more cities should take advantage of a federal program that provides low-interest loans to upgrade sanitary systems.

"The City of Port Huron, they're a perfect example of a city that has totally done what they need to do," says Miller. "And of course it's been very expensive. Many senior citizens in the city complain about their water and sewer bills, and you can't blame them. But that's really what needs to be done. Some communities have not got the political will, and I understand, resources are tight. But look, we need to always advocate to protect our magnificent Great Lakes, and we have got to let Mother Nature have the opportunity to breathe!"

Tracy Samilton covers energy and transportation, including the auto industry and the business response to climate change for Michigan Public. She began her career at Michigan Public as an intern, where she was promptly “bitten by the radio bug,” and never recovered.