High Time to Tackle Toxic Algae Blooms’ Source

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In what hopefully is a precedent-setting case that focuses attention on a major cause of algae blooms in waterways, U.S. District Judge Benita Pearson recently sentenced an illegal slaughterhouse operator to 33 months behind bars for dumping phosphorus-laden animal blood and other “bodily fluids” into a stream that empties into Lake Erie.

In sentencing Amin Salem, Judge Pearson specifically called out the violation of the Clean Water Act, something Ohio’s boating interests have for many years contended needs to be enforced if there’s any hope of freeing waterways from algae problems nationwide. Is the tide finally turning?

Specifically, Salem’s prison sentence covers charges of commercial slaughtering of animals without a permit, the Clean Water Act violation, and even money laundering, according to the U.S. Attorney’s office. Moreover, Mohamed Salem, 32 and Zahran al-Qadan, 55 were also named in a six-count indictment.

Salem is a multiple offender — he imprisoned in 2007 in a $7.7 million food stamp fraud ring and in 1993 for a $6.6 million food stamp fraud scheme. Does this prove the veracity of the joke: What’s a moron’s last words? “Hey, watch this!”

What may be most important here is the Environmental Protection Agency’s criminal investigation unit verifying the defendants had “blatantly disregarded environmental laws by discharging animal waste directly into a local stream.” That zeros in on a major source of the phosphorus that is causing the green slime epidemic - Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations. These are large livestock facilities permitted to hold thousands of animals that produce tons of waste. In turn, the waste is spread on farms as fertilizer. When its combined with commercial fertilizers also used in excess of need, much gets washed into streams to foul rivers and lakes.

In Ohio, CAFO’s produce more than 760 million gallons of phosphorus-rich manure annually. Moreover, they are primarily in the northwest Ohio region that drains into western Lake Erie. Soil tests clearly show the farms where the manure is spread already have more than enough phosphorus to successfully raise key crops. Sadly, it’s a perfect prescription for phosphorus and more to be washed away from the fields to harm waterways with algae blooms.

In all states with serious algae problems, there is a need to mandate that farmers be prohibited from using more fertilizer than their crops truly need. But that’s not happening in spite of the fact, for example, that a field research project by the Ohio State University determined more than 40 percent of the acres disclosed by the farms had phosphorus levels high enough to grow the major crops for at least five years. Is anybody listening?

Here’s irony for you. Harold Watters, an Ohio State agronomic systems field as well as a farmer, reportedly had a one-word fertilizing recommendation for acreage found with those high phosphorus levels: “Stop!” But it’s only a recommendation. It needs teeth!

This is a national issue that needs more federal intervention. While Lake Erie has become an unfortunate icon for the annual invasion of the green slop, more than 30 states have reported algae blooms in the past 3 years — many multiple times, according to an analysis by the Center for Public Integrity, Grist, and The World.

These days the major focus is on the coronavirus, and justly so. But as boaters, we must recognize when toxic microcystin shows up in concentrations above a 20-parts-per-billion threshold it can be unsafe for our recreational activity. Algae are natural. But when it explodes and slimes up the waterways, it is all manmade.

Until the Salem case, holding major contributors accountable hasn’t happened. More specifically, in Ohio, former Governor John Kasich talked a big game about protecting Lake Erie, especially after a 2014 algae bloom caused the city of Toledo to cut off drinking water to citizens for three days.

But in spite of the talk, he failed to support needed mandatory requirements that farmers and CAFO’s reduce harmful runoff, and even ignored calls to officially declare the western Lake Erie “impaired” until 4 years after the Toledo water problems. Had he done so earlier it would have opened the door to adopting more protective measures under the Clean Water Act.

It’s not just an Ohio problem, of course. Citizens in Rushville, N.Y., were told microcystin was found in their water supply from Canandaigua Lake and they should use their tap water for drinking, cooking and for making ice, infant formula or preparing food until further notice.

Across the country in the communities of Salem and Turner, Oregon, citizens were warned toxins in the city's tap water were too high for young children and some adults. Governor Kate Brown even ordered the Oregon Military Department to provide additional water supplies to Marion County.

Overall, it’s obvious the algae problems won’t end until the states set legally enforceable pollution limits for farms and CAFO’s. Hopefully the wakeup call is getting loud enough. 

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