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Higgins pushes for experimental program to fight algae in Great Lakes

WASHINGTON – Fearing that the ever-larger algal blooms in Lake Erie will one day creep eastward toward Buffalo, Rep. Brian Higgins on Monday asked the Army Corps of Engineers to combat the mucky green menace in the Great Lakes by expanding a successful experimental program first tried in Florida.

In a letter to R.D. James, assistant secretary of the Army for civil works, Higgins suggested that an Army Corps effort that's helped clean up Florida's Lake Okeechobee might work up north, too.

"Algal blooms threaten not only the economic well-being but the health and safety of waterfront communities nationwide," Higgins, a Buffalo Democrat, said in the letter.

Higgins noted that in the federal fiscal year starting in October, the House is on target to more than triple federal funding to fight algal blooms.

"When this legislation is enacted, it is my hope that the agency will direct a substantial portion of these new resources to an algae interdiction effort on Lake Erie similar to the agency’s effort on Lake Okeechobee," Higgins wrote.

In an interview, Higgins – a member of the House Great Lakes Task Force – said he learned of the Army Corps' experimental effort in Florida through a report on National Public Radio.

That report detailed the Army Corps pilot project called the Harmful Algal Bloom Interception, Treatment, and Transformation System, or HABITATS. First used in sewage plants, the technology used in the experimental program attaches microscopic air bubbles to the algae growing in the Florida lake, thereby forcing it to rise to the surface, where it can be easily skimmed off.

"You want it to float so that it doesn't fall to the bottom and consume all the oxygen, creating dead zones where aquatic life cannot survive," Higgins said.

Such dead zones have appeared regularly in western Lake Erie in recent years. This summer's algal bloom was the biggest ever, and for the first time, the toxic muck appeared as far east as Erie, Pa.

Algal blooms do much more than damage aquatic life. Toxic algae resulted in the shutdown of the water supply in Toledo, Ohio, in 2014.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, “harmful algal blooms, or HABs, occur when colonies of algae — simple photosynthetic organisms that live in the sea and freshwater — grow out of control while producing toxic or harmful effects on people, fish, shellfish, marine mammals and birds. The human illnesses caused by HABs, though rare, can be debilitating or even fatal.”

That being the case, Higgins said it only makes sense for the Army Corps to bring an experimental program to fight algal blooms to the place where they pose the greatest threat: Lake Erie.

He said he was particularly concerned that an algal bloom could appear locally someday.

"That would be a terrible tragedy for Buffalo's waterfront, given the very, very significant progress that we have made over the past decade," Higgins said.

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