Bill aimed at toxic algae approved by U.S. House subcommittee

WASHINGTON, D.C. — A House subcommittee on Thursday approved legislation that would order the Environmental Protection Agency to act on the problem of toxic algal blooms that taint Lake Erie drinking water.

The action follows last summer’s ban on consuming Toledo drinking water after it was polluted by dangerous levels of microcystin, a toxin spawned by algal blooms that feed on fertilizers entering the lake from nearby farms. The EPA does not currently have standards that say what levels of the toxins are unsafe.

The legislation drafted by Bowling Green GOP Rep. Bob Latta would give EPA 90 days to develop and submit a “strategic plan” to Congress for assessing and managing risks from cyanotoxins in drinking water. The EPA would be required to compile a list of dangerous algal toxins and their harmful effects, suggest treatment options and provide technical assistance to states and public water systems.

Latta said his bill takes a more comprehensive approach to the problem than a measure that Toledo Democratic Rep. Marcy Kaptur and both of Ohio’s U.S. Senators introduced last year. That bill, which gave EPA a firm deadline to come up with new cyanotoxin standards, was approved by the Senate but not the House.

Latta said the other bill did not require a “strategic plan” as his does. He said his bill also requires the Government Accountability Office to report to Congress on federal efforts to fight cyanotoxins, with the goal of reducing duplication and improving interagency coordination of such expenditures. The other bill didn’t do that.

The House Commerce Subcommittee on Environment and the Economy conducted a hearing on Latta’s bill before approving it.

The American Water Works Association told the subcommittee that given the uncertain conclusion date for research on cyanotoxins, it is “wise” for Latta’s bill to seek a “strategic plan for addressing cyanotoxins” rather than giving EPA a specific date to release its cyanotoxin standards.

Latta said the full Commerce Committee will probably consider his bill next week. He said it has a good chance for passage on the House of Representatives floor because both political parties agree toxic algae is a problem.

“People not only in Northwest Ohio, but across the country, look forward to the bill’s passage,” Latta said.

Ohio Environmental Protection Agency drinking water chief Mike Baker told the subcommittee that without EPA guidance, states are left to come up with toxin standards on their own.

“We welcome EPA’s advisory,” said Baker.

The head of EPA’s Office of Ground Water and Drinking Water told the subcommittee EPA will release health advisories for two cyanotoxins associated with algal blooms this spring. He said they will describe levels under which harmful effects aren’t expected, and recommend ways to treat water affected by algal blooms.

EPA’s Peter Grevatt said high levels of the toxins can cause harmful health effects. including fever, diarrhea, vomiting and allergic reactions. Grevatt said the upcoming advisories will describe levels that could cause health problems.

Shortly after Toledo’s drinking water was polluted, Grevatt said EPA directed $12 million in Great Lakes Restoration Initiative money to target harmful algal blooms in Western Lake Erie and invest in water infrastructure to prevent such pollution.


Photo: Rep. Bob Latta (left) chats with U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officials before a hearing on a bill to address drinking water problems caused by algal blooms. (Sabrina Eaton, Northeast Ohio Media Group)

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