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The "Perfect Storm" Behind Toledo's Toxic Tap Water

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On Saturday morning, 500,000 Toledo, Ohio, residents woke to an urgent warning that their tap water could make them very, very sick. Toledo’s water crisis is over, for now, but the “perfect storm” that created it rages on.

Mayor D. Michael Collins lifted the tap water ban on Monday, but that doesn’t mean Toledo residents — or the other 11 million Americans who get their drinking water from Lake Erie, or the 25 million who live near the Great Lakes — can rest easy. The factors that caused the crisis remain unaddressed.

Why couldn’t Toledo residents trust their tap water? The culprit is a toxin called microcystin, released by cyanobacteria, also known as blue-green algae.

Microcystin is pretty nasty stuff.

  • It causes stomach pain, nausea, vomiting, severe headaches, and fever if ingested.
  • It can cause severe liver damage.
  • It causes rashes, hives, and blisters on the skin.
  • It’s been known to kill dogs and other animals.

Boiling water doesn’t kill microcystin. It just concentrates the toxin.

Blue-green algae has been around for 3.5 billion years. Why is it suddenly a problem? Actually, there’s nothing sudden about it. Toxic blue-green algae has been a growing problem for 10 years. The algal bloom troubling Toledo isn’t even very big. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has released satellite images of algae blooms on Lake Erie that have stretched all the way from Toledo to Cleveland, and beyond.

Pollution, conservatism, corporate lobbying and climate change created a “perfect storm” for the algae that poisoned Toledo’s water.

Pollution: Like the classic horror movie mutants of the 1970s, the big green monster that poisoned Toledo’s water is a product of pollution. Scientists blame an overload of phosphorus, caused by runoff from agricultural pollution.

Farming operations have grown, along with the use of manure and new chemical fertilizers containing water-soluble phosphorus. A rise in no-till farming leaves more fertilizer on top of untilled soil, where it can easily run off into Lake Erie and other Great Lakes.

About 63 percent of Erie’s watershed is used for agriculture. An Ohio state government task force found that Erie received more phosphorus than any of the Great Lakes — 44 percent of the total for all the Great Lakes. Two-thirds of that phosphorus came from farmland.

Conservatism: In the 1960s, Lake Erie was so polluted with industrial waste and sewage runoff that it was considered “dead.” Local officials were embarrassed into cleaning up their act, Congress passed the Clean Water Act in 1972, and by the late 1990s Lake Erie showed signs of returning to health.

Current problems underscore the Clean Water Act’s limitations. The Act was designed to regulate pollution from fixed points, like industrial outflows and sewer pipes. Today’s agricultural pollution is spread out over thousands of miles. Addressing the agricultural pollution the Clean Water Act doesn’t cover has fallen to the states.

On the federal level, conservatives have limited the government’s ability to regulate agricultural pollution. The Supreme Court, in a 5-4 conservative-liberal split with Justice Anthony Kennedy joining the conservative bloc, questioned the scope of the Clean Water Act. In a 2006 ruling, the Court limited regulators’ ability to protect wetlands — which filter out phosphorus before it reaches lakes — and other waterways not directly connected to streams covered by the Act. Since then, Republicans in Congress have blocked an effort to expand the Clean Water Act’s authority, claiming it infringes on private property rights and threatens farmers.

Republican-led state and local governments have done little or nothing to regulate agricultural pollution. Ohio Gov. John Kasich signed legislation to certify farmers who use phosphorus fertilizers. The voluntary program doesn’t start until 2017, and stops far short of mandating restrictions on phosphorus fertilizers.