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The Great Toledo Toxic Algae Event

Don’t Drink the Water!

by MICHAEL LEONARDI

The  aquapocalypse in Toledo, Ohio is now entering its third day after citizens in the greater Toledo area woke up to a stark reality on Saturday morning when city officials had issued an unprecedented, region wide water advisory warning people not to drink or boil local tap water due to toxic contamination. It is further recommended that young children and the elderly not bathe in the water.  Samples at the Collins Park treatment plant, that services nearly 500,000 residents in NW Ohio and SE Michigan, have tested above safe drinking standards for microcystin and test results continue to show dangerous levels.  A state of emergency has been declared by the state of Ohio.

A giant Toxic Algae bloom, of the type that has been plaguing Lake Erie for a decade, has for the first time overwhelmed the local water treatment plant at Collins Park and forced city officials to take this step to protect the health and safety of citizens.   Years of hand wringing, millions of dollars in research grants, and lip service by the inept political caste on the causes and intensification of the blooms has done nothing to improve the situation.

The massive and recurring Toxic Algae Blooms on Lake Erie are a man made disaster. A combination of factory/industrial farming, sewage, storm water runoff and industrial pollution are to blame.  The massive coal burners, nuke plants and tar sands refineries along the lake use millions of gallons of lake water and create large heat zones from thermal pollution where water temperatures are much warmer.  The heat zone created by the thermal pollution along the lake, which includes the Monroe Power plant, the second largest coal burner in North America, was pinpointed in satellite imagery taken in 2011 as the spawning zone of that years algae bloom.

Microcystin is created by what are now called Harmful Algal Blooms or HABs.  They are caused by the addition of nutrients like phosphorous and nitrogen to a water body and are made up of cyanobacteria, commonly called blue-green algae. Some cyanobacteria can produce toxins, called cyanotoxins.  Some cyanotoxins can be toxic for humans, animals and plants and microsystin is one of these toxic cyanotoxins that is has been plaguing Lake Erie for years.  Fertilizer from factory farm runoff is the number one contributor.

Acccording to the World Health Organization, when levels of microcystin reach over 1 parts per billion water should not be used for drinking or food preparation. The samples taken showed levels of 2.5 parts per billion, according to City Water department officials.  Tensions are now surfacing between elected officials and the EPA. Local congresswoman Marcy Kaptur infuriatedly demanded transparency from the intransigent Environmental Protection Agency that has not made any of their test results available to her or the public up until this time.  An EPA official told her in passing that there had been one spike of 3 parts per billion or three times safe drinking water standards. There is also growing frustration with the Environmental Protection Agency for its failure to create standard protocols on what is considered a safe level of the toxic Microcystin or standard sampling procedures. Ineptitude reigns supreme in the face of disaster.  Just one week before the current water ban, the EPA claimed that the water was safe and there was no risk of such an emergency occurring.

lakeerieatoxiclagae

Toxic algae bloom in Lake Erie, 2011.

Many have seen this reality coming for sometime.  Anna Michalak, lead researcher on a National Science Foundation study project studying water quality and sustainability on the Great Lakes, describes the factors that have lead to this emergency, “It is a combination of agricultural practices, meteorological conditions and also slowly changing climate conditions that are coming together to make these blooms more and more likely as we look into the future.”   Climate change and global warming are definitely contributing factors as water temperatures in the shallowest of the Great Lakes increase.

Richard Stumpf, along with other scientists wrote a paper that shows there are ways to predict the severity of the blooms based on the amount of runoff from farms each year. “We’re looking at making some upgrades in our modeling of the location of the bloom so that we might be able to help the water suppliers along the lake better know if there’s potential impact, so they can plan better.”

Both Stumpf and Michalak agree that measures taken to reduce phosporous levels in the the lake improved condititions until the late 90s when blooms started increasing in intensity. Other sources of phosphorous and nitrates entering the Lake, including overburdened and antiquated sewage treatment plants are also to blame.

According to Accuweather, Ohio state officials released the first beach advisory on July 23 after the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration issued a June 2014 report predicting a significant threat to Lake Erie due to harmful algal blooms (HAB). The blooms are a malignant type of cyanobacteria that crowd water areas, typically late in the summer to early fall for the Great Lakes region.

Lake Erie endured an extreme bloom in 2011 that turned waters a putrid green and closed beaches due to health risks. Researchers have expected 2014 blooms to be milder, due to drier conditions, but winds seem to have pushed the Harmful Algal Blooms, HAB’s, into the coastline overhwelming the water intake ststem that is itself in need of an over 300 million dollar upgrade.

Sandy Bihn, of the environmental organization Western Lake Erie Water Keeper and an expert on the issue of Toxic Algae on Lake Erie,  says that the four largest contributors to these dangerous blooms are Fertilizer, Waste Water, Manuer, and Storm Water run-off.   While much is being done to reduce the sources of these nutrients reaching Lake Erie, it is obviously not enough. “The most important thing that can be done to reduce this threat to our Lake and our water supply is to identify all the sources of nutrients and phosporous entering Lake Erie and figure out how to stop them, “ Bihn said.

According to a report entitled HAB’s and drinking Water Concerns, from Timothy Murphy , comissioner of the Division of Environmental Services for the City of Toledo, The City of Toledo currently uses Potassium Permanganate, Powdered Activated Carbon, Aluminum Sulfate, and Chlorine to treat the local water supply for mitocystin and has had to increase the amount of these substances used in recent years to combat the Harmful Algae Blooms. The total cost of water treatment just for the HAB’s in 2013 was 4 million dollars with an increase of 1 million dollars authorized by City Council, the city of Toledo also adds flouride to the local water supply.

Regradless of whether or not the city and the state EPA deem the Toledo water safe to drink, many of us choose to avoid drinking it as best we can.  The chemicals used to “purify” the water have their own health risks and side effects and past analyses of Toledo water by independent environmental groups showed a myriad of cancer causing substances, including harmful levels of benzene.  Toledo activist and former city councli member Mike Ferner tied this crisis into the cost of war, the cost of “deeming the water safe,” for the nearly 500,000 residents in the guise of the needed upgrades to the water treatment facility would be roughly one fifth the amount local taxpayers have spent to fund the foreign wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Ferner said.  That additional 225 million dollars that our Senate approved in military aid for Israel’s massacre of Palestinians last week, on top of the over 3 billion a year already earmarked, could sure come in handy dealing with the rotting infrastructure in the rust belt, too.

Unfortunately, this is a crisis from which we will not be able to buy our way out.  The continued use and abuse of our Great Lakes will only lead to more and more emergencies  like this one in the future.  This report from the International Joint Commission on the Great Lakes makes some clear and direct recommendations on some initial steps that need to be taken, to improve the situation, and having the political and societal will to enact them would be a start.  The report does not go far enough, however, and I am curious to know if anyone actually thinks the oligarchy will do anything at all?

Michael Leonardi lives in Toledo, Ohio and can be reached at mikeleonardi@hotmail.com