Climate

Bill Combating Toxic Algae Blooms Passes House Of Representatives

CREDIT: AP Photo/Jeff Barnard, File

This Aug. 21, 2009, file photo shows an algae bloom in the reservoir behind Iron Gate Dam on the Klamath River near Hornbrook, Calif.

Toxic algae’s newest enemy might soon be the Environmental Protection Agency, if legislation passed by the House of Representatives Tuesday becomes law.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Bob Latta (R-OH), would direct the EPA to assess the risks posed by toxic algal blooms and come up with ways to fight the blooms. The agency would do so under the Safe Water Drinking Act, the federal law aimed at protecting the drinking water of Americans.

The EPA’s plan would include an outline on when and how the agency could create a “comprehensive list of algal toxins” that can poison drinking water, a list that would include how these toxins impact human health. The list would also include information on how and why this algae forms. Once the EPA completed the plan — no later than 90 days after the bill is signed into law — the agency will submit the plan to Congress.

“Algal toxins produced by harmful algal blooms are presenting a serious concern to human health and safety,” Latta said on the House floor Tuesday.

As an Ohio representative, Latta would know. Last year, a toxic algal bloom in Lake Erie poisoned the water of about 400,000 people in Toledo, Ohio. Lake Erie has struggled with algal blooms and dead zones — areas of a body of water with such low oxygen levels that aquatic life can’t live there — for decades. Though environmental regulations such as a 1988 ban on phosphorus in detergent have helped the lake’s condition, phosphorus runoff from sources like agriculture continues to contribute to the lake’s algae and dead zones.

Algal blooms — including Lake Erie’s — have also been linked to climate change. Hans Paerl, Kenan Professor of Marine and Environmental Sciences at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, wrote in a letter in Science Magazine in 2008 stating that cyanobacteria — the type of bacteria, also known as blue-green algae, that poisoned Toledo’s drinking water — grows better in higher temperatures than some similar organisms, including diatoms and green algae. Paerl told ThinkProgress last year that extreme rainfall, which is likely to become a more common occurrence in parts of the world as the climate changes, also creates ideal environments for algae, because it can wash large amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus from agricultural areas into a body of water. Then, if that extreme rainfall is followed by a period of drought or high heat, the algal bloom can be exacerbated further.

“Say you have a very wet spring with lots of rainfall coming in and then you have an extremely dry summer, then you pretty much have the perfect conditions for these blooms to really go to town, so to speak,” Paerl said.

Latta’s bill isn’t the first to try to tackle the issue of algal blooms. Last week, the Ohio Senate unanimously passed a bill that seeks to reduce nutrient pollution in Lake Erie by restricting where Ohioans can spread manure and fertilizer, banning the dumping of dredged material in the lake, and forcing water treatment plants to monitor dissolved phosphorus levels. And last year, Obama signed into law the Harmful Algal Bloom and Hypoxia Research and Control Amendments Act, which establishes a task force to develop a Great-Lakes specific plan for algal blooms. A few months later, after the dangerous Lake Erie bloom, Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) announced the Great Lakes region would be considered for Farm Bill funding that would help to cut down on the amount of phosphorus that enters the basin. Some of that funding has already begun to flow to local communities.

Latta might want the EPA to tackle algal blooms, but he isn’t a fan of some other EPA regulations. He criticized the agency’s proposed carbon regulations last year, and said in April that the EPA as a whole “has imposed excessive regulations on American businesses, especially in the manufacturing sector, making it harder for them to expand and hire.”