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Authorities investigate death of thousands of fish in Williams County, OH [W of Toledo]

August 24, 2017

WEST JEFFERSON, Ohio — Manure spread across more than 100 acres of farmland just before a major thunderstorm rolled in killed “close to 15,000” fish in eastern Williams County’s picturesque Beaver Creek, raising new questions about the strength of rules governing fertilizer application and how well farmers are following them.

The incident is one of at least three in northwest Ohio being investigated by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, the state Department of Agriculture, the state Environmental Protection Agency, and local soil and water conservation districts.

Jeremy Payne, chief wildlife investigator for the Ohio DNR’s District 2 office that covers much of northwest Ohio, told The Blade on Wednesday that 36,800 fish died in Allen County’s Jennings Creek on Aug. 6 and 14,600 fish died in a Hardin County stream on Aug. 4, much in the same manner that the Williams County fish died on Aug. 17.

An additional case is being investigated in Mercer County, although Mr. Payne said that one is in another district. Information about it was not immediately available.

In each case, manure was spread too close to the arrival of a major thunderstorm. Ammonia from the animal waste flowed into nearby creeks, sucking oxygen from the water and leaving fish dead.

VIDEO: Anthony Lemle, Ohio Division of Wildlife


Ohio Division of Wildlife officer Anthony Lemle, next to Beaver Creek near West Jefferson, Ohio on August 23. Fish in the creek were killed after a significant rain event flooded manure into the creek.

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The carnage in Williams County wasn’t immediately known, because Beaver Creek’s water level was too high to do an immediate assessment after the storm, officials said.

The creek was hit by an unusually heavy storm that dumped 2.5 inches of rain on it within hours on Aug. 17.

Anthony Lemle, Ohio DNR state wildlife officer assigned to Williams County, said a local citizen reported dead fish along the Beaver Creek shoreline on Friday. Mr. Lemle was one of nine Ohio DNR officers who scoured nearly 10 miles of the creek near West Jefferson, but had to wait until Saturday to begin their assessment because the creek was holding an unusual amount of water.

When asked how many fish were killed in Williams County, Mr. Payne replied: “Close to 15,000.”

State rules that took effect on July 3, 2015, prohibit manure from being spread when there is a greater than 50 percent chance more than a half-inch of rain will fall within 24 hours. Investigators are trying to determine if fertilizer applicators in each situation disobeyed those rules — or if the fish kills were from freakishly heavy downpours in isolated areas, as sometimes happens despite best weather predictions for a region.

“I think it’s a freak [of nature] that amount of rain fell in that one spot. All of Williams County did not get 2.5 inches,” Mr. Payne said. “Did they know some rain was coming, though? That’s what we’re looking into.”

The Ohio DNR believes it knows who spread the manure in at least a couple of cases, including the one in Williams County, but are withholding information about the applicator and the crop field where it was spread pending the investigation. Violations have not been filed in any of the cases yet, he said.

Under a worst-case scenario, someone found in violation of the rules could be ordered to pay the state of Ohio restitution for the fish kills and face either criminal or civil penalties, he said.

“Every dead fish has a value of some sort,” Mr. Payne said.

He said it is unclear if the manure was generated by a livestock facility large enough to be classified as a concentrated animal feeding operation, or CAFO, or if it came from some other type of operation, including one of the many dozens of farms that keep their animal herds just under the CAFO-permitting threshold.



“I don’t know where the manure came from at this point,” Mr. Payne said.

Typically, livestock farmers contract out manure application to others, who spread it on nearby crop fields as part of the industry’s state-approved manure management plans. Those plans are kept secret, because the agriculture industry fears farmers taking the manure will be harassed.

Environmental groups nationwide have called upon stricter controls for manure management, especially as the agricultural industry becomes more consolidated. Farmers are under pressure to produce more meat and crops on less land as Earth’s population continues to expand, the planet’s climate warms, and rural areas become paved with more development.

The concerns have been amplified in the western Lake Erie region in response to the 2014 crisis in which nearly 500,000 Toledo-area residents were warned to stay away from their tap water for nearly three days because of an algal toxin that had temporarily poisoned the water.

Former Toledo City Councilman and two-time mayoral candidate Mike Ferner launched a group called Advocates for a Clean Lake Erie in response to that crisis. It calls for stronger CAFO rules, better manure management, and an impairment status for Lake Erie’s open water in hopes of achieving those two objectives.

“This is absolutely, 100 percent, a discharge into the waters of the U.S. and is a violation of the Clean Water Act,” Mr. Ferner said. “And we demand an immediate investigation using DNA tests. We need to know where this came from and hold the polluters strictly accountable. Not only has this polluter killed untold numbers of fish, but its toxic plume is on the way to Lake Erie where our drinking water comes from.”

Most fish-kill events tend to occur in August, when temperatures rise and creeks are shallow, Mr. Payne said.

Beaver Creek was shallow again on Wednesday, following several days of little or no rain.

“This is the time of year. There’s a lot of manure being spread on fields,” Mr. Lemle said.

Beaver Creek is normally used by smaller fish because of its shallowness. Minnows, sunfish, and bullhead were among those killed last week, but there also were some large northern pike, Mr. Lemle said.

He said he counted 800 dead fish himself.

Fertilizer in that area either flows off the surface of fields or through tiles beneath the surface. Many of those tiles drain directly into Beaver Creek.

Most fish that weren’t recovered have mostly decayed at the bottom of the creek, Mr. Lemle said.

The Ohio Department of Agriculture, which regulates farms that produce manure, will decide what course of action to take once more is known about the investigation, Brett Gates, ODA deputy communications director, said.

The Ohio EPA has had staffers visit the site, and has initiated an investigation into potential violations, agency spokesman James Lee said.

Contact Tom Henry at thenry@theblade.com419-724-6079 or via Twitter @ecowriterohio.


Algal blooms cost Ohio homeowners $152 million over 6 years

August 17, 2017

Property values fall, as do fishing license sales, two studies find - first ever (OSU)

COLUMBUS, Ohio—In a new study, researchers at The Ohio State University estimate algal blooms at two Ohio lakes cost Ohio homeowners $152 million in lost property value over six years.

Meanwhile, a related study suggests that algae is driving anglers away from Lake Erie, causing fishing license sales to drop at least 10 percent every time a bloom reaches a moderate level of health risk. Based on those numbers, a computer model projects that a severe, summer-long bloom would cause up to $5.6 million in lost fishing revenue and associated expenditures by anglers.

Those are the main findings from the first two studies ever to put a precise dollar value on algae impact, both on Lake Erie and two recreational lakes in Ohio. One study appears in the journal Ecological Economics, and the other in the Journal of Environmental Management.

“Our biggest takeaway is that efforts to prevent and mitigate algal blooms have real, tangible benefits for Ohioans, including property values,” said Allen Klaiber, associate professor of agricultural, environmental and development economics at Ohio State.

In the first study, he and doctoral student David Wolf found that property values near two algae-infested lakes in the state’s interior fell $152 million from 2009 to 2015. Sale prices for homes within one third of a mile of a lake fell 11 to 17 percent during that time, while prices for lake-adjacent homes fell more than 22 percent.

A number of additional factors that influence property values were included in the analysis to ensure that the observed losses in property values were directly attributable to changes in water quality. For example, seasonal trends in the housing market, differences in structural characteristics across homes, and spatially varying provision of public services such as school quality were all controlled for in the analysis.

Most of the losses were felt by residents around Buckeye Lake, just east of Columbus. There, residents collectively lost $101 million in home sales over six years. Grand Lake St. Marys in northwest Ohio felt a smaller but still significant loss of $51 million.

Turning to Lake Erie, the researchers teamed with doctoral student Will Georgic to examine state revenue from sport fishing, which contributes to a $1.7 billion tourism industry. They found that once algae levels reach a “moderate” threshold as described by the World Health Organization (WHO), fishing license sales within 12 miles of Lake Erie dropped 10 to 13 percent.


Toledo Blade hosts editorial forum on health of Lake Erie

August 17, 2017

Activists call for 'impaired' designation for western basin

hree local environmental activists called on Toledo and Ohio leaders Thursday to more vigorously pursue “impaired” status for western Lake Erie under the Clean Water Act, arguing that merely monitoring pollutants after they’ve entered the lake will not solve the lake’s algae problem.

While Mayor Paula Hicks-Hudson and Ohio Gov. John Kasich say such a designation would stigmatize the area, “Our region already has a black mark on it, and you can see it from outer space,” Mike Ferner of Advocates for a Clean Lake Erie said.

Mr. Ferner, a former Toledo city councilman and mayoral candidate, was referring to the green expanse of algae that once again has erupted across western Lake Erie. He spoke during a Blade editorial-board forum that was live-streamed on Facebook. The video is available for viewing on Buckeye Broadband.

Past algal blooms have been documented in satellite photographs, including the bloom in 2014, which produced so much toxic microcystin that Toledo’s drinking-water supply was shut down for more than two days that August.

Mr. Ferner was joined on the panel by Frank Szollosi of the National Wildlife Federation, also a former Toledo councilman, and Sandy Bihn of the Lake Erie Foundation.

Ms. Bihn said there is no direct impact from declaring a body of water “impaired,” nor does such a designation impose any schedule on authorities for developing an action plan to address the impairment.

But without such a designation, she said, no serious effort will be made to identify and quantify sources of chemical nutrients that enter Lake Erie through its tributary rivers and streams, and promote toxic algae growth.

Agricultural fertilizers lead among those sources, she and the other panelists agreed. Large volumes of cow manure also play a role, especially as industrial-scale dairies and other concentrated animal feeding operations grow in northwest Ohio and southeast Michigan


Scavia (UM)- Nutrient pollution:Voluntary steps are failing to shrink algae blooms

August 1, 2017

Summer is the season for harmful algae blooms in many U.S. lakes and bays. They occur when water bodies become overloaded with nitrogen and phosphorus from farms, water treatment plants and other sources. Warm water and lots of nutrients promote rapid growth of algae that can be toxic and potentially fatal to aquatic life and people.

Eventually algae settle to the bottom and decay, depleting dissolved oxygen in the water, creating hypoxia – “dead zones” where oxygen levels are low enough to kill fish.

As a senior scientist at the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration between 1975 and 2003, I developed annual hypoxia forecasts for the Chesapeake Bay and the Gulf of Mexico – two of our nation’s water bodies most harmed by these blooms. At the University of Michigan, I helped develop harmful algae bloom forecasts for Lake Erie and continue to work with public and private organizations on these issues.

 Professor of Environment and Sustainability; Professor of Environmental Engineering, University of Michigan


Hiding Info stalls action: Heidelberg, others knew Dissolved Phosphorus problem since 2002

July 30, 2017

On 6/28/17, Michigan's DEQ & MDARD employees expressed surprise about dissolved Phosphorus impacts & advocated for the need to "study" conservation practices for future years. More taxpayer funded "study halls" should be ended now. Current Ag practices are making the phosphorus problem in Lake Erie worse, or as the scientists stated: "unintended, cumulative, and converging impacts". Source control must start with enforcement & reduction of manure waste, and treatment of manure.

[caption id="attachment_2201" align="aligncenter" width="1024"]Slide 12 of Powerpoint presentation by Michigan DEQ employees: Lake Erie Domestic Action Plan - June 28, 2017 6:30 PM - 8:30 PM, Adrian College Lake Erie Domestic Action Plan - Slide 12 Powerpoint
June 28, 2017 6:30 PM - 8:30 PM, Adrian College[/caption]

This 2017 study shows what Heidelberg & others have known for a dozen years:

Increased soluble phosphorus loads to Lake Erie:
Unintended consequences of conservation practices?

Journal of Environmental Quality, Volume 46, Issue 1, 2017, Pages 123-132

Summary: Cumulative daily load time series show that the early 2000s marked a step-change increase in riverine soluble reactive phosphorus (SRP) loads entering the Western Lake Erie Basin from three major tributaries: the Maumee, Sandusky, and Raisin Rivers. These elevated SRP loads have been sustained over the last 12 years.

Within these watersheds, there have been long-term, largescale changes in land management: reduced tillage to minimize erosion and particulate P loss, and increased tile drainage to improve field operations and profitability. These practices can inadvertently increase labile P fractions at the soil surface and transmission of soluble P via subsurface drainage. Our findings suggest that changes in agricultural practices, including some conservation practices designed to reduce erosion and particulate Phosphorus transport, may have had unintended, cumulative, and converging impacts contributing to the increased SRP loads, reaching a critical threshold around 2002.

Complete study here.


Green grows the algae bloom, and not enough is being done about it

July 28, 2017

Bridge Magazine, Center for Michigan, 7/28/17, Bill Richardson

Summertime for many of us who call the Great Lakes State home means enjoying our lakes, rivers, and parks as much as possible. However, for those enjoying summers on Lake Erie, Saginaw Bay, and numerous inland lakes and rivers across Michigan, that also now means encountering harmful, toxic algae blooms.

Every year now, Michiganders get to see (and smell) these unmistakable reminders that this problem is not getting better – the frequency, size and toxicity of algae blooms are worse than ever. When the water is thick, green, and smells like sewage, you don’t really sit back and enjoy Pure Michigan.

The algae blooms force beaches to close and boaters to beware, creating a loss for vacationers and the tourism industry as well as a financial hit for those who make their living on Michigan’s waters. A study commissioned by the International Joint Commission found that two severe toxic algae blooms in Lake Erie in 2011 and 2014 caused approximately $136 million in economic costs.

Commentary from Bill Richardson, retired Environmental Research Engineer and former director of the USEPA Large Lakes Research Station in Grosse Ile, Michigan.



Michigan’s plan to improve water quality in Lake Erie won’t get the job done (MEC)

July 14, 2017

Water protection groups submit comments on draft plan Jul 14, 2017, Michigan Environmental Council

The state of Michigan's plan to reduce pollution in Lake Erie shows good intentions but lacks teeth to make sure we will actually see any significant improvement in the water quality of the lake. 

On Thursday the Michigan Environmental Council and eight water protection groups submitted extensive comments on the draft Domestic Action Plan to the Department of Environmental Quality to improve Michigan's plan and ultimately, improve the health of Lake Erie. The public comment period ends today. 

"The draft recommends voluntary measures to reduce phosphorous runoff from agricultural lands," said Tom Zimnicki, MEC agriculture policy director. "Researchers continually conclude agriculture is a primary contributor of pollution to Lake Erie. Voluntary measures for farms are not effective enough to curb pollution and will not get the job done." 

The comments point out the lack of a robust system or data for measuring progress. They also provide detailed recommendations for improving the plan to help Michigan meet regional goals, including comprehensive soil testing and the implementation of minimum conservation standards. 

A copy of the comments are available on the Michigan Environmental Council website:



Forecasters: Lake Erie algae bloom shaping up as big and possibly harmful

July 13, 2017

This year's bloom is predicted by NOAA to be much larger than average - just under the size of the 2014 bloom that left 500,000 without drinking water. (Detroit Free Press)

The forecast for western Lake Erie for later this summer into fall?: Green and mucky.

The algae blooms that have plagued the lake in recent years are expected to be worse than normal this year, well above the size at which they can potentially become harmful to aquatic life and even humans, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration forecasters announced Thursday.

This year's algae bloom, which usually begins in late July and can continue into October, is expected to measure 7.5 on a severity index developed by NOAA and other researchers, but could range between 6.5 and 9.5. The largest blooms since the problem returned to Lake Erie in the late 1990s, in 2011 and 2015, were 10 and 10.5, respectively, on the severity index.

The forecast for western Lake Erie for later this summer into fall?: Green and mucky.

The algae blooms that have plagued the lake in recent years are expected to be worse than normal this year, well above the size at which they can potentially become harmful to aquatic life and even humans, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration forecasters announced Thursday.

This year's algae bloom, which usually begins in late July and can continue into October, is expected to measure 7.5 on a severity index developed by NOAA and other researchers, but could range between 6.5 and 9.5. The largest blooms since the problem returned to Lake Erie in the late 1990s, in 2011 and 2015, were 10 and 10.5, respectively, on the severity index.


Illegal Labor at Dairy Farms = Guilty Plea (Michigan)

July 11, 2017

RUTH, Mich. (AP) — A judge has accepted a guilty plea in an investigation of illegal labor at dairies in Michigan's Thumb region.

Madeline Burke pleaded guilty to hiring people without verifying that they were eligible to work in the U.S. The government says the workers were in the U.S. illegally.

Burke and her husband are natives of Ireland. They operate two dairies near the tip of the Thumb. Burke has agreed to pay a fine of $187,500, which adds up to $1,500 per illegal worker. [Note that this is a fine for 125 illegal workers]

Federal Judge Thomas Ludington accepted her guilty plea in a June 29 decision.

Charges still are pending against her husband, Denis Burke. He's accusing prosecutors of selectively targeting immigrant farmers. Dutch immigrants John and Anja Verhaar were prosecuted in 2010. The government denies any discrimination.

Related MLive Article:  Dairy farms, owners charged with hiring undocumented immigrants