Congress holds Hearing on Algae Contamination of Lake Erie Drinking Water

Posted in: Drinking Water News, United States Water News, Water Contamination
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A House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee held a Wednesday hearing on how to reduce levels of algae that can taint drinking water, such as this bloom in Lake Erie. (Photo credit: file photo

Article courtesy of Sabrina Eaton | November 19, 2014 | Cleverland.com | Shared as educational material

WASHINGTON, D. C. – A Lake Erie algae outbreak this summer that rendered Toledo area tap water undrinkable spurred a U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee on Wednesday to examine what’s being done to address problems.

Subcommittee members including Bowling Green Republican Rep. Bob Latta called on the federal, state and local governments to work together to better understand the science, and human effects of algae contamination.

“There is no single smoking gun that leads to algae-based toxin in drinking water,” said Illinois Republican Rep. John Shimkus, chairman of the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Environment and the Economy. “There are still plenty of things we don’t know about this subject.”

Ohio Environmental Protection Agency director Craig Butler said the state is “working on many different fronts” to respond to the problem. After the Toledo-area shutdown, it immediately made $1 million in grant funds available for cyanotoxin testing equipment, so water systems could conduct their own monitoring, as well as $50 million in zero interest loans for enhanced water treatment infrastructure and back-up public water sources. It also made $100 million available for wastewater treatment plants, Butler said.

Earlier this week, Ohio lawmakers in Columbus proposed new rules designed to reduce levels of agricultural runoff that bleeds into Lake Erie and provides phosphorous and nitrogen that feeds the algae blooms.

American Water Works Association President John J. Donohue told the subcommittee the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Department of Agriculture should “give higher priority to nutrient reduction projects that protect downstream clean water supplies.”

“We need federal help,” Donohue said.

OEPA’s Butler suggested a comprehensive national approach to the issue should involve a thorough study of the substances’ health effects, research on what makes the algae produce toxins and determining the best methods to detect and treat algae blooms.

“Ohio has taken many steps to proactively address the issue of cyanotoxins in drinking water, but this is a complex and challenging issue and much remains to be done,” said Butler. “State and federal leaders need to work closely together to quickly advance the science to detect and effectively treat cyanotoxins in drinking water, and to adjust our strategies as new information is obtained.”

Peter Grevatt,Cleveland native who heads the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Groundwater and Drinking Water, agreed coordinated federal, state and local actions are needed to end western Lake Erie’s problems. He said programs to keep fertilizers out of waterways and investment in the nation’s drinking water infrastructure will help eliminate future contamination.

“We’re putting all the burdens on the drinking water system to remove the toxins,” said Grevatt. “It is important to address the sources as well as making sure the treatment systems are in tip-top shape so they can remove these pollutants from drinking water.”

He said water contaminated by cyanotoxins can kill animals. In humans, it can cause fever, headaches, muscle and joint pain, blisters, stomach cramps, diarrhea, vomiting, mouth ulcers, and allergic reactions, said Grevatt. While exact risk levels are uncertain, he said such serious potential health effects suggest it’s important to address the issue.

“The EPA is taking aggressive action to develop and publish health advisories, water quality criteria, and analytical methods while providing ongoing technical assistance to states and communities,” said Grevatt. “The EPA will continue to engage with utilities, and local, state, and federal government partners, to reduce utilities’ vulnerability to such incidents through preventive and preparedness measures.”

After EPA comes up with health advisories to help local water systems determine which levels of algae are unsafe, communities will have to figure out the tests they’ll need to do to detect contamination, said Latta. Machines to perform at least one of the algae detection tests cost around $400,000, and personnel who are certified to perform the tests are scarce.

To reduce substances in the lake that could promote algae growth, Latta has introduced a bill that would block the Army Corps of Engineers from dumping dredged material into any of the Great Lakes.

To improve the accessibility of studies on algae contamination, Latta has introduced another bill that would require the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to create an electronic database of research and information on algae blooms in the Great Lakes.

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