Oregon Councilman Sandy Bihn expressed concerns about the increased threat of harmful blue green algae in Lake Erie, particularly its connection to microcystin, a toxin recently found near the intake of Carroll Township’s water plant.
The toxin, which can damage the liver, was found at levels of 3.56 parts per billion in samples taken from the township plant, which is 3.5 times higher than the level for drinking water set by the World Health Organization. The plant was shut down for days as a result.
The growing algae in Lake Erie, which is partially connected to runoff of phosphorus fertilizer from farms, has long been a concern to environmentalists.
“It’s somewhat alarming,” Bihn, a western Lake Erie waterkeeper, said at a council meeting last Monday. “The life of it seems to be longer than we thought. We thought it was just with the algae, but it appears to stay longer. I know we’re treating it, I know we’re doing everything we can. Oregon has been a leader in that. But it is a serious matter. And at some point, we have got to start turning the corner, if you will, from the problems that we’re having because it’s a continuing threat.”
She read a quote from a story in an Akron newspaper that described algotoxins as being as “harmful as cobra venom or cyanide.”
Although there has been no detection of toxic levels of microcystin in Oregon’s water plant, Bihn said there is still reason for concern.
“We really don’t know sometimes what exactly this will do in the future to a shallow body of water like Lake Erie. As I look at the foam and the suds out there day after day in the green water, it’s pretty sobering,” said Bihn, who lives on Bay Shore Road. “I just want to make sure we continue to do everything we can and we continue to support programs that will help out. Looks like banning fertilizer, manure and bio-solids on frozen ground might be one way to help in the short run. But it’s a pretty serious threat.”
In 2010, the city acquired its own testing equipment to quickly detect algae toxins in the water after the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency (OEPA) conducted tests and found very low levels of microcystin in the finished (treated) water in Oregon and Carroll Township.
“Mrs. Bihn is correct,” said Councilman James Seaman. But he said the city is doing its best to maintain the quality of its drinking water.
“It’s daunting the number of groups that are working to keep Lake Erie clean,” said Seaman. “It just seems like it’s going to be a very difficult battle. We need to be as proactive as we can.”
“Anytime that subject comes up, I take it every seriously,” said Mayor Mike Seferian. “It’s such a big regional problem. We do in the city set the trend for others to try and address that issue. When we came before council in 2010 to request the funding for the equipment to do the testing, and put it into service, it’s because we anticipated things like this. We wanted to keep our water supply safe. And if other innovations come up in the future, where we can try to assure our plant runs with top quality water, we will be coming before council again. But I want to emphasize we are showing zero on the toxins.”
Bihn said she recently discussed algae and drinking water issues in London, Ontario, and learned that Canada has a source water protection program, which is comparable to the Clean Water Act in the United States.
“You actually track your source water to treat before it gets into the plant and you watch it over time to see if it is getting better or worse,” said Bihn. “The problem is we’re treating it and we’re doing everything we can to address the problem, and it’s working well. However, it costs us more to treat. And year after year, if that problem keeps getting worse, is there a tipping point? Hopefully, we can always treat it. But if it is getting worse and worse, then we need to find a way to make the quality of water that we treat better and have better quality of water coming into the intake, and have less cost to treat that waste and the algae that is now present and is a problem. So source water protection is one way of looking at it. If the numbers continue to go up, then we really need to get more aggressive about making sure we turn that corner.”