Ohio must put Lake Erie on a “pollution diet” under the terms of the settlement

TOLEDO, OH — The state of Ohio must develop a mandatory cap on algae-enriched nutrient pollution entering Lake Erie, under the terms of a proposed court settlement.

Public comment is due December 12 on a federal consent decree that would force Ohio to create a new plan to curb nutrient runoff from farms and livestock operations by imposing a maximum total daily load (TMDL) for the Maumee watershed River is developed.

Known as “pollution diets,” TMDLs are designed for impacted water bodies to determine how much pollution they can handle before water quality suffers too much.

Under negotiated contract terms, the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency (Ohio EPA) has until June 30 to complete a new TMDL plan. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) must then either approve it or create its own.

The settlement follows a lawsuit filed against the EPA in 2019 by the Environmental Law and Policy Center (ELPC) in Chicago and Lucas County, which surrounds Toledo.

Lucas County and the Law and Policy Center alleged that the EPA failed to comply with the Clean Water Act by failing to force Ohio to take stricter measures to reduce agricultural pollution entering the lake.

District leaders urged people to comment on the agreement.

“The comment period is a time when the public can hold the Ohio EPA to the standards it has avoided for years,” said Pete Gerken, a Lucas County commissioner.

“The only way to effectively clean up Lake Erie is for those who are polluting our water system to adhere to mandatory standards,” Gerken said. “These standards apply to municipal discharges in cities and counties, and the same standards must apply to other polluters.”

In 2020, under pressure from litigation, Ohio began drafting a TMDL plan. For years, the state resisted both declaring the lake disabled and developing a nutrient pollution cap despite repeated annual algal blooms that turn the lake green every summer and fall with toxic bacteria that sicken people and animals exposed to it can.

This year’s bloom was the sixth-worst on record. It lasted from mid-July to early November – a month longer than usual, and for the first time in 20 years the algae persisted into October.

“It’s not year-by-year that matters, it’s the long term,” said Don Scavia, a University of Michigan aquatic ecologist who works on bloom forecasting.

“We’re not moving in the right direction yet.”

If Ohio completes a TMDL plan by next year’s deadline, it will take just under nine years to complete, after 500,000 people in and around Toledo lost access to safe drinking water for several days in August 2014 when algal toxins leaked from the lake into the water treatment system entered the city.

Michigan, Ohio and Ontario then agreed to reduce the nutrient levels entering the lake by 40 percent by 2025. That’s a steep task in Ohio, since each spring and summer the algae are fed primarily by phosphorus and nitrogen entering the Maumee River, a heavily managed watershed primarily in Ohio and accounting for nearly 90 percent of the nutrients entering the reach the western basin of the lake.

Commercial fertilizers are the main source of nutrients in the Maumee watershed, but Rob Michaels, attorney at the Environmental Law and Policy Center, said huge livestock farms known as concentrated animal feed plants (CAFOs) are another big polluter.

Michaels said manure from livestock farms is being overused as fertilizer in the watershed and waste producers need regulatory restrictions placed on them.

“They apply a lot more (manure) than the plants really need, and they apply it in such a way that even if it’s done at agronomic rates, some of it ends up in the water,” Michaels said. “These facilities must, in our view, be licensed under the Clean Water Act; whose terms can be scaled down to meet TMDL targets.”

This type of approach has been strongly opposed by agricultural interests, which have opposed mandatory measures in favor of voluntary approaches such as the H2Ohio program, which provides significant funding and technical assistance to encourage farmers to reduce phosphorus runoff using conservation techniques such as growing cover crops to reduce .

The proposed consent decree does not specify what type of regulatory action Ohio must take to reduce agricultural nutrient runoff entering the lake, but Michaels said the TMDL plan must include “reasonable assurances” that the targeted reduction targets “actually.” be reached. ”

To provide those assurances, Michaels said the Environmental Law and Policy Center and Lucas County believe the TMDL plan “needs to point to programs with enforceable standards and ongoing funding that we can rely on to achieve the reduction.” “.

“The mechanisms by which the reductions are achieved should be clear and independently enforceable,” he said. “And that’s where the rubber hits the road.”

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