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Ohio’s pollution-control effort won’t do enough to reduce the growth of dangerous algae

Ohio, upstream and upwind from Western New York, is causing a problem. It needs to be more committed to dealing with it, and that probably requires the help – or supervision – of the federal government.

New York has paid a price over the years for its geographic location at the receiving end of Ohio’s pollution. Acid rain pelted our lakes and forests, deadening some in the Adirondack wilderness. Agricultural runoff from Ohio poisons Lake Erie, creating toxic algae blooms that are moving ever closer to Buffalo where, without intervention, they may eventually threaten the water supplies of many municipalities. It has to stop, not just for New York’s sake, but for Ohio’s, Pennsylvania’s and Ontario’s.

It is, literally, a growing problem that has commanded the attention of environmentalists and at least one state government leader from Western New York. “Buffalo is dependent on Lake Erie for our drinking water,” Assemblyman Sean Ryan, D-Buffalo, said last week. “If the toxic algae blooms continue to spread, Buffalo and Western New York could be at risk. It is clear that Ohio has not gone far enough, and New York is threatened by Ohio’s inadequate plan.”

That’s why Washington – or the federal courts – will have to be involved. It’s an appropriate place for Washington to intervene, given that one state’s policies on the waterways and the air can play havoc with those of others. Ohio has frequently been slow to acknowledge its role in causing environmental harm to its neighbors.

Indeed, it was a federal judge, based in Ohio, who in 2003 forced a power company, Ohio Edison, to comply with pollution control laws, despite White House resistance. The ruling was seen as a victory for those who cared about reducing acid rain and asthma in New York.

It would be better if something similar was ultimately unnecessary in dealing with the algae blooms that are partly a consequence of climate change, but also of fertilizer runoff in a comparatively shallow lake. But it’s a deadly serious problem that has to be resolved.

In 2011, poisonous blue-green algae spread nearly 120 miles, from Toledo at the western end of the lake to past Cleveland. It contributed to an expanding dead zone at the bottom of the lake, slashing fish populations and creating a cascading effect on the multibillion-dollar Great Lakes tourism industry as well as Western New York’s developing “blue economy.”

These blooms are moving ever closer to New York, a few years ago reaching as far east as Presque Isle Bay in Erie, Pa. Ohio needs to do more for everyone’s sake, and Washington should be ready to ensure that it does.