COLUMBUS, Ohio (CN) – Following years of foot-dragging, Ohio conceded Thursday the waters of Lake Erie’s western basin are impaired by pollution, a declaration welcomed by environmentalists fighting to clean up open waters that have become associated with an unpleasant slimy green sheen.
Since the early 2000s, scientists say that phosphorous pollution derived from farm industry runoff including fertilizers and manure has contaminated Lake Erie, leading to ever-growing algae blooms that in the past have made water undrinkable and shut down beaches.
Aerial photographs have shown the blue lakes turning a sickly green color in summer months as the algae thrive in warm and shallow waters. Environmentalists say that water contaminated by the algae can make people sick, kill marine life and make water in the lake undrinkable. Close to 3 million people reply on drinking water from Lake Erie’s central basin.
The issue gained international attention in 2015, when close to half a million people in the northwestern Ohio city of Toledo were forced to turn to bottled water for three days after their drinking water was deemed unsafe. A state of emergency was declared, and the National Guard was called in.
Still, Governor John Kasich had resisted calls to designate Lake Erie as impaired by pollution, fearing Ohioans would take that to mean that drinking water that comes from the lake is unsafe.
But after several legal challenges from environmentalists, the state took a step closer to ending that resistance on Thursday.
In a news release, the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency announced it will propose this year to designate the open waters of Lake Erie’s western basin as “impaired for recreation” because of the algae blooms.
Before Thursday’s announcement, only the shoreline of the western basin had been designated as contaminated by the toxins. The new designation would cover waters from the Ohio-Michigan state line to the Marblehead Lighthouse, about 55 miles east of Toledo. That stretch of water is popular with anglers and boaters.
Environmentalists hope the state will follow up the proposed designation with regulations that protect the lake, though Ohio EPA Director Craig Butler warned that the classification was not a “magic bullet.”
The Kasich administration said it had enlisted researchers from Ohio State University’ Sea Grant College Program, Bowling Green State University, University of Toledo, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration NOAA and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to come up with a scientific method to determine impairment in the basin.
The Ohio EPA seemed to strike a note of caution when it stated in the release: “To date, no such [scientific] process has existed, so Ohio has not been able to determine if the open waters of Lake Erie should be listed.”
Ohio has invested $3 billion in improving water quality in the lake. Butler said Governor Kasich took his responsibility as steward of the lake “very seriously.”
“While designating the open waters of the western basin as impaired does not provide, as some suggest, a magic bullet to improve the lake, the state remains committed to our obligations under the Clean Water Act and to examine emerging science and practices that we can put in place to help improve it,” the director said in a prepared statement.
The Environmental Law & Policy Center had sued federal regulators last summer after the U.S. EPA approved an Ohio impaired-waters list that did not include the open waters of Lake Erie.
The group’s executive director, Howard Learner, said he is pleased that Kasich recognized that the lake is impaired but noted that it is just a first step.
“The necessary next step for Lake Erie is strong, enforceable standards to reduce the pollution that causes toxic blue-green algae, threatening safe drinking water, and crippling tourism,” Learner said.