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U.S. EPA Rejects Ohio's List Of Impaired Waters, Which Didn't Include Lake Erie

Algae blooms on the coast of Toledo.
NASA Glenn Research Center

The U.S. EPA has withdrawn its acceptance of the Ohio EPA’s assessment of impaired waterways, in a decision that’s being hailed by local politicians. The federal agency changed its mind because the assessment did not account for Lake Erie’s open waters.

Environmental groups filed a lawsuit in April after the Ohio EPA left Lake Erie off its list of impaired waterways, saying that the decision would prolong the lake’s problems.

Calling the lake “impaired” could set tougher rules on some pollution sources, including wastewater plants. But an Ohio EPA spokesman says it would not give the Ohio EPA additional authority or guarantee any addition funding for combating pollution from "nonpoint" discharge sources. That includes agricultural fertilizer, which scientists say is the largest contributor to algae blooms in Lake Erie.

“Ohio isn’t necessarily opposed to an 'impaired' designation, as long as it comes along with scientific standards,” said James Lee, a spokesperson for the Ohio EPA.

Lee says Ohio has repeatedly asked the federal EPA to draft more standards to help fight fertilizer-fueled algae blooms.

“This decision continues kicking the can down the road while Lake Erie and the people and wildlife depending on it wait for solutions,” said Frank Szollosi of the National Wildlife Federation in May.

U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur applauded the EPA's reversal, pointing to a three-day period in 2014 during which Toledo residents were told not to use their tap water. That warning came after toxic algae blooms leaked into water treatment facilities.

“There was this false distinction between the river and the lake,” Kaptur said. “Well, in fact, the river dumps into the lake and it carries all of the nutrients with it.”

Last year brought one of the worst algae blooms on Lake Erie, covering about 1,000 square miles from Toledo to Ontario at its peak. Unlike previous years, however, it did not directly threaten drinking water.

Kaptur says the federal Clean Water Act dictates that when a state fails to assess its waters, the federal EPA must step in and take action.

In October, in response to the lawsuit, the U.S. EPA said that the Ohio EPA did not fully look at research on algae blooms when it considered its impaired waterways designations. Now, federal EPA has reversed its approval and told the Ohio EPA to perform a new evaluation of Lake Erie.

The actions the Ohio EPA will take moving forward are not clear.