Water Pollution: A Big Problem Requires Big Answers

Last year, city officials in Toledo, Ohio, issued a ban on drinking water from the city’s municipal water system. Phosphorus from fertilizer runoff in the watershed created a massive algae bloom that happened to be centered over the city’s water intake, poisoning the city’s water. In 2013, a town adjacent to Toledo banned drinking the algae-ridden water until a new ­intake location was established. In recent years, similar events have occurred each summer, keeping people off the beaches or requiring them to drink bottled water.

Phosphorous And Nitrogen The Big Culprits

Pollution in Ohio’s lakes and rivers is not limited to phosphorous. Nitrogen compounds, also present in fertilizer and manure, can create dangerous concentrations of the compounds derived from nitrogen – nitrates and nitrites – that can lead to potentially serious illnesses, especially in infants. These compounds have also been linked to cancers, birth defects and dangerously low blood pressure when combined with certain medications, such as Viagra.

Nitrates and nitrites have affected the water in Columbus this year. Pregnant women and infants have been advised to not drink city tap water. Ironically, this happened after the city announced last year that problems such as those in Toledo were unlikely to happen in Columbus.

Legal Action After Damage Caused By Pollution Difficult

Did these events result in lawsuits against water authorities, cities and polluters? In some states, events such as these would have resulted in legal action. Although there is certainly enough blame to go around in Ohio, there was not much legal action in response to the pollution scare. There is a good reason for this: In 1985, the state Legislature passed the Political Subdivision Tort Liability Act. The law made it very difficult to hold governmental agencies in Ohio liable for injuries caused by negligence.

There are additional barriers to seeking justice for those injured by polluted water from Lake Erie and other waterways. The federal Clean Water Act was developed to reduce pollution from specific points, such as industrial wastewater and sewage outflows from municipal systems. Because the law fails to address widespread runoff, such as the agricultural runoff that sends phosphorus and nitrites into the water supply, it is difficult to take legal action. Who would you sue?

Recently Passed Bill Is The First Step To Better Control

Partly in response to the problems in Toledo and Columbus, the state Legislature passed a law that seeks to limit the nutrients – nitrogen and phosphorous – that cause algae bloom and make water unsafe to drink or even swim in.

The bill requires farmers using fertilizer to be certified by the state. During the class leading to certification, farmers will learn how much and when fertilizer should be applied. This requirement will take effect in 2017. Many, however, view this law as only a first step, and a tentative one at that.

Dealing with pollution in Lake Erie and other Great Lakes is going to take a long time. Enabling legal action against polluters could speed up the process.