Congress Examines Threat to Water from Toxic Runoff

When 400,000 people in Ohio were told by authorities to stop drinking their tap water for two days this August, the warning centered attention on something most people assumed only troubled creatures lower down the food chain.

But the waters of Lake Erie, near Toledo, had become so ripe with toxin-producing algae — potentially dangerous to humans — that residents, regulators and lawmakers had to take notice.

In the warm days of summer, the relatively shallow waters of the lake had become a giant Petri dish for blue-green algae, or cyanobacteria. That flourishing cyanobacteria, in turn, produced potentially deadly cyanotoxins, particularly one called microcystin. When farmers in the region heard about it, they knew critics would soon would be looking in their direction.

Agricultural runoff isn’t the only cause of cyanobacteria, but it is a major one. So, in the days after the water order, lawmakers in Ohio began discussing legislation that would limit when farmers could apply fertilizer and manure. That legislation is pending.

Meanwhile, members of Congress whose districts touch the lake renewed calls for the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate cyanotoxins, and provide guidance to water utilities on how and when to test for the potentially deadly toxins.

Farm groups bristled. For years, nitrogen- and phosphorous-laden agricultural runoff has been blamed for a growing “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico and algal blooms in bodies of water around the country. But polluted drinking water, they figured rightly, would raise the level of attention.

“What Toledo brought forward is that this is a major public health issue that’s not going to get better,” said Mae Wu, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council. “We’re finally waking up to the fact that it’s not just affecting recreational use of water, it’s the water coming out of our tap.”

Now members of Congress are responding. In the week before Thanksgiving, Ohio Republican Rep. Bob Latta introduced a bill (HR 5753) that would amend the Safe Drinking Water Act (PL 93-523), ordering Congress to develop a strategic plan for “assessing and managing risks associated with cyanotoxins in drinking water provided by public water systems.” That legislation came on the heels of a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing on cyanotoxins.

At the hearing, John Donahue, president of the American Water Works Association, which represents water plant operators and utilities, noted in his testimony that there remains uncertainty around the dynamics behind algal blooms, and even uncertainty around the possible effect on human health.

“However, there is no uncertainty about one critical aspect of the problem: It is always associated with amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus in the water,” Donahue said. “Although each watershed is unique and has its own mix of nutrient sources, across the nation the most prominent uncontrolled sources of nitrogen and phosphorus are non-point sources — that is, runoff. These sources are at the same time both the hardest to manage and the furthest from being subject to meaningful federal regulatory authority.”

Sources of Pollution
Under the Clean Water Act, larger, concentrated feeding operations are required to have discharge permits. But other agricultural runoff, considered “non-point” sources of pollution, aren’t regulated.


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