A federal lawsuit filed Thursday accuses the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency of failing to hold Ohio accountable for the amount of phosphorous pollution in the western basin of Lake Erie, leading to algae blooms that contaminate the water.
The Environmental Law and Policy Center, a Midwestern nonprofit environmental advocacy group, cited the Clean Water Act to draft a citizens' suit complaint, saying the federal regulatory agency approved a 2018 Ohio EPA report that had no effective plan for reducing phosphorus pollution.
The group sent a notice in December that gave the federal EPA 60 days to correct the violations, alleging Ohio was not penalized for failing to adhere to standards for total maximum daily phosphorus loads in the western basin. The daily loads are the amount of phosphorus that can be tolerated in the western basin that would still keep the water of Lake Erie healthy and available for use as treatable drinking water for millions of people.
Despite efforts to reduce the phosphorus load by 40 percent by 2025, no progress has been made, according to the group. Most of the phosphorus comes from runoff into the Maumee River from areas in northwestern Ohio, where there's a high concentration of farming.
“The Clean Water Act provides a specific legal pathway to reduce phosphorous pollution causing harmful algae blooms in western Lake Erie, but U.S. EPA and Ohio EPA refuse to follow the law,” Howard Learner, the center's executive director, said in a written statement. “The court should require (the U.S.) EPA to do its job well by promptly adopting and implementing an effective Clean Water Act plan to limit manure and fertilizer runoff that causes harmful algal blooms.”
A U.S. Global Change Research Program report issued last year predicts the blooms will only worsen leading to "lengthy, and dense algae growth in the Great Lakes" triggered by more rain events that could lead to runoff and driving up phosphorous levels.
The center previously filed a federal lawsuit in 2017 centered on the impairment designation of the western basin. The court determined that Lake Erie did not meet water-quality goals due to phosphorous pollution and was considered impaired.
The organization is hoping this latest lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Ohio will hold state officials accountable when it comes to phosphorus levels and force them to work toward fixing the problem.
"It's a legally enforceable requirement that makes you do the work," said Madeline Fleisher, a senior attorney for the Environmental Law and Policy Center who is based in Columbus. "You're mapping out: 'Where is this coming from?' and 'Where do we need to be focused on reducing it?'"
Heidi Griesmer, a spokeswoman for the Ohio EPA, said the state's legal counsel is reviewing the lawsuit.
"Governor DeWine has made it clear that Lake Erie is his top environmental priority, and we will be taking a multi-agency approach," she said in an emailed statement. "The directors of Ohio EPA, Agriculture and Natural Resources are talking frequently, working together and will be listening to all involved parties. We intend to roll out initiatives early in this administration."