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This map shows mycrocystis levels in Lake Erie in August of 2014 when Toledo residents were told they couldn't drink the water.

A new Lake Erie battle: Lucas County sues U.S. EPA over western basin water quality

By Peggy Kirk Hall, director of agricultural law, Ohio State University Agricultural and Resource Law Program

Disagreements over how to improve the health of Lake Erie have led to yet another federal lawsuit in Ohio. This time the plaintiff is the Board of Lucas County Commissioners, who filed a lawsuit in federal court in April against the U.S. EPA. The lawsuit accuses the U.S. EPA of failing to enforce the federal Clean Water Act, which the county believes has led to an “alarming” decline in the water quality of western Lake Erie.

The Clean Water Act requires states to monitor and evaluate water quality and establish water quality criteria, and also to designate a water body as “impaired” if it does not meet the criteria. Once a water body is on the impaired waters list, the state must create Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDLs) for the water body. TMDLs determine the maximum amounts of each pollutant that can enter a water body and still allow the water to meet the established water quality criteria. Plans for reducing a pollutant would be necessary if the pollutant exceeds the TMDLs. The state’s efforts to establish the water quality criteria, designate impaired waters and develop TMDLs are subject to review and approval by the U.S. EPA, who must ensure that the states are taking adequate action pursuant to the Clean Water Act.

Lucas County alleges that the U.S. EPA has failed in its Clean Water Act obligations by allowing Ohio to refuse to prepare TMDLs for the western basin of Lake Erie. Even after another court battle forced the designation of the western basin as “impaired,” the county explains, Ohio’s EPA declared the western basin to be a low priority for TMDL development and has not yet proposed either TMDLs or an alternative plan for addressing the basin’s impaired water status. Lucas County argues that since Ohio has not established TMDLs for the impaired waters of Lake Erie, the U.S. EPA must step in and do so.

The county also contends that the lack of state and federal action on the impaired waters status of the western basin has forced Lucas County to expend significant resources to maintain and monitor Lake Erie water quality for its residents. According to Lucas County, such actions and costs would be unnecessary or substantially reduced if the U.S. EPA had fulfilled its legal obligations to ensure the preparation of TMDLs for the western basin.

Agricultural pollution is an explicit concern in the county’s complaint. The development of TMDLs for the western basin would focus needed attention and remedial measures on pollution from agricultural operations, Lucas County states. The county asserts that TMDLs would establish a phosphorous cap for the western basin and methods of ensuring compliance with the cap, which would in turn address the harm and costs of continued harmful algal bloom problems in Lake Erie.

The remedy Lucas County requests is for the federal court to order the U.S. EPA to either prepare or order the Ohio EPA to prepare TMDLs for all harmful nutrients in the western basin, including phosphorous. The county also asks the court to retain its jurisdiction over the case for continued monitoring to ensure the establishment of an effective basin-wide TMDL.

This is not the first TMDL lawsuit over the western basin. In early February of this year, the Environmental Law and Policy Center (ELPC) and the Toledo-based Advocates for a Clean Lake Erie filed a lawsuit that similarly alleges that the U.S. EPA has failed to require Ohio to establish TMDLs for the western basin, which is still ongoing. The case followed an earlier and successful push by the ELPC to order Ohio to declare the western basin as impaired, which the state had refused to do previously.

The newest round of litigation again highlights differences in opinion on how to remedy Lake Erie’s phosphorous pollution problem. Like the TMDL lawsuits, a successful effort by the Toledoans for Safe Water to enact the Lake Erie Bill of Rights was also predicated on claims that Ohio and the federal government aren’t taking sufficient action to protect Lake Erie. Lucas County made it clear that it isn’t satisfied with the state of Ohio’s approach of providing funding to promote voluntary practices by farmers to reduce phosphorous pollution, despite stating that the county isn’t “declaring war on agriculture.”

In its press conference announcing the current lawsuit, the county explained that the state’s voluntary approach won’t provide the “sweeping reforms we need.” On the other hand, the Ohio Farm Bureau has argued that the TMDL process for Lake Erie can take years longer and be less comprehensive than the voluntary practices farmers are pursuing. Still others believe that more research will help us fully understand the phosphorous problem and identify solutions.

As battles continue over the best approach to improving Lake Erie’s water quality, maybe all could at least agree that litigation is costly, in many ways. An alternative but perhaps more challenging path would be appreciation of the concerns on both sides of the issue and cultivation of collaborative solutions. Let’s hope we can find that path.

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