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Empty Glass City
The order to turn off our taps came at 1:21 a.m. By six shelves were stripped of all varieties of water, from distilled to flavored. When I pulled up to the grocery store people were leaving with carts wobbling under the weight of bagged ice. I stood in line outside the Save-A-Lot waiting for it to open and the woman closest to the door yelled at the rest of us in line, “you can all go home because I’m here first and I’m buying every motherf*****g case of water in the place!” I drove on to the Family Dollar where two ladies in front of me had baskets filled with hand sanitizer and paper plates speculate.
“You know they knew about this for way longer than they saying.”
“Probably been bad water for years and they not telling us.”
Toledo’s mayor, Michael D. Collins, spoke to the media the next afternoon on the steps of Toledo’s city hall, a tower designed by Minoru Yamasaki, the architect of New York’s World Trade Center, failing miserably at seeming confident and in charge as he told four hundred thousand people that their water was poisoned. Blue-green algae had proliferated across western Lake Erie turning the water a surreal green, a stain extending for hundreds of square miles and easily spotted from space. The algae excretes microcystin, a potent cyanotoxin that causes liver failure among other disorders. At his next press conference a day later Collins turned from grim to testy, answering one reporter’s question about when the water might be safe to drink with “I’m not God, and I don’t control Mother Nature.”
Within twenty-four hours an alphabet soup of agencies had arrived, FEMA, EPA, CDC, the Ohio National Guard, and all were as powerless as if Godzilla had waded out of the bay. Local and state authorities attempted to calm the public by focusing attention on the near term: when the next lab samples would be analyzed, where water distribution centers were open, and whether it was advisable to eat off dishes rinsed in Toledo water. No one was willing to state the tragic and obvious fact that no matter how long this crisis lasted, whether a few days or a few weeks, the water problem in Lake Erie was not some extraordinary event, but the new normal for our region. There was no quick fix for a problem over one hundred and fifty years in the making.
Toledo sprawls over what was once considered the most impenetrable swamp west of the Alleghenies. The Great Black Swamp was the last area in the region to be invaded and colonized by Europeans who were long kept at bay by clouds of malarial mosquitoes and thickly wooded wetlands that even horses had trouble walking through. The swamp proved a refuge for native people’s displaced from other parts of Ohio and was the site of two decisive battles, the Battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794 and the Siege of Fort Meigs in 1813, that broke native resistance.
Though bad for human health, swamps were vital to the ecosystem of Lake Erie by acting as a massive purifier of otherwise brackish and shallow waters. So fertile and productive was the great lake, especially at the delta of the largest river emptying into it, the Maumee, that early Toledo was a major fishing port. Sluggish lake sturgeon, prehistoric fish that grew to eight feet in length, were so easily netted, hooked, or clubbed, that they were chopped up and sold to farmers for fertilizer. Great ditches were dug throughout the region and the great swamp was deforested and drained within a generation of the first European settlers.
Due to its excellent location on the lake and the railroad mainlines that snaked through it connecting Chicago and the east coast, Toledo grew rapidly and attracted a variety of manufacturing industries making glass, wagons, ships, pumps and fittings for the oil industry, and machine tools, and these in turn attracted an unusually skilled workforce that unionized early and elected a succession of progressive mayors including Samuel “Golden Rule” Jones and Brand Whitlock. The touchstone of progressive urbanism at the dawn of the Twentieth Century was sanitation, building sewers and paving roads, so much so that Milwaukee’s socialists did not object when their enemies called them ‘sewer socialists’. Toledo invested heavily in its water and sewer system and boasted of its fine record of public health.
Other cities ringing Lake Erie followed similar paths and by the mid-Twentieth century earning their nicknames, the Glass City and the Motor City, and the Lake Erie basin grew to hold one-third of all the people who lived near any of the Great Lakes and even more of its industry. Detroit’s sewer and water system grew to be on of the largest in America, sprawling across southeastern Michigan, draining a thousand square miles into Lake Erie via the Detroit river. All lake cities invested heavily in facilities to treat their base sewage load but allowed these systems to overflow untreated raw sewage into the lake whenever rains swelled their volume. Early in the twentieth century when these combined sewer and storm drain systems were first engineered there were comparatively few paved streets connected to the mains. But with the rise of the automobile paved streets became the norm and the combined sewer systems were overwhelmed. As early as the 1920s scientists measured a decline in the amount oxygen in lake.
In World War Two Erie’s cities became known as the arsenals of democracy as Jeeps, bombers, tanks, and munitions rolled out from vast factory complexes. When the war ended the same plants that had produced megatons of explosives were converted to the production of chemical fertilizers revolutionizing farming. Most of the lands circling Lake Erie were already unusually fertile as their soils had accumulated under ancient wetlands and the region straddles that sweet spot of average rainfall where most all crops grow well. But chemicals allowed for the replacement of labor with machinery and the consolidation of smaller farm plots into large agribusinesses.
By the 1960s the combined impact of the region’s population growth, industrialization, and inorganic agricultural practices were evident as the Lake became choked with algae each summer. Even later in the 1970s when environmental consciousness rose action to limit sewage and farm runoff into the lake was impeded by the fact that five different states and a Canadian province all contributed to the problem. It wasn’t until the late 1970s that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency began pressuring cities to separate their storm and sewer systems. By that time the region’s industrial fortunes had reversed and cities like Toledo and Detroit that were losing population, industry, and their tax base to capital flight and globalized competition. (Great Lakes cities all attempted to reverse their declines by granting tax credits and even subsidies to their largest corporations, limiting their ability to upgrade their infrastructure even further.) The EPA reached agreement with the city of Detroit in 1977 to improve its sewage treatment system though the city failed to meet every agreed upon benchmark. Similarly, in 1991 the EPA issued orders under the Clean Water Act to Toledo to limit its combined sewer overflow and the city responded by counter-suing and tying the order up in federal court for the next nineteen years.
Over the last ten years both Detroit and Toledo have finally taken steps to build massive retention systems to prevent sewage overflows. Detroit has reduced its releases of raw sewage by eighty percent, though this means the city still discharges nearly 7 billion gallons of raw untreated sewage into the western Lake Erie basin. Toledo has much further to go, having only begun construction on a system of retention basins and continues to dump 1.7 billion gallons of its raw waste into the same bay from which it draws its drinking water.
Improvements in agricultural practices are even less promising. Agribusiness lobbies continue to block even the most modest regulations controlling the indiscriminate use of chemical fertilizers. Ohio, which contributes the most agricultural runoff to the lake, is a state gerrymandered to favor rural districts and the Republican-controlled legislature recently blocked a bill to limit regulate the use of fertilizers, replacing it with one that required farmers to receive training before hooking up their sprayers.
Today is our third day with poison in our taps. My son who has eczema drives to the next county to take a shower. Most restaurants are closed. The grocery store sells only produce washed and bagged in a factory in a distant state. A panicked yell echoes through our house whenever it is discovered that someone forgot to put the toilet seat down as one of our dogs might take a drink. Local officials have just begun hinting that this crisis might linger for more than a couple days. And here I sit, a couple miles from the eleventh largest body of fresh water on the planet unable to drink a drop of it.
On the morning of the third day of Toledo’s water crisis, mayor Collins, clearly under intense pressure from the business community, opened a press conference by drinking a glass of city water proclaiming, “Our water is safe.” Later that day, after having refused throughout the crisis to reveal the actual lab data on levels of microcystin, the city released the 72 page report of the water director to the mayor. It revealed that the quantity of toxins entering the system at the water intake continued to be more than five times the level that is safe for human consumption. As long as the lake’s toxicity remained stable, by increasing chlorine levels 22 percent and doubling the amount of carbon dumped through the filtration tanks, the levels of toxins reaching the tap could be kept just below the threshold. The EPA ordered Toledo to sample and analyze untreated water at the lake intake and water at the tap every day until the raw levels dropped below five times the limit for three consecutive days. After that, the city could revert to sampling the water twice a week. ["City of Toledo Department of Public Utilities Microcystin Event Preliminary Summary, Aug. 4, 2014."]
Timothy Messer-Kruse is a professor in the School of Cultural and Critical Studies at Bowling Green University. His most recent book is Tycoons, Scorchers, and Outlaws: The Class War that Shaped American Auto Racing, (Palgrave-Pivot, 2014).
 Mayor’s Press Conference, Sunday 9:45 pm.