Toledo water declared safe to drink; attention focuses on recurrent Lake Erie toxins

TOLEDO — An advisory on drinking water in the Toledo area ended Monday with a tribute to it: The mayor raised a glass of city-treated water to his lips.

Mayor D. Michael Collins announced during a morning news conference that the city’s water tests finally showed safe levels of the toxin microcystin.

The advisory, issued early Saturday to 500,000 customers, created havoc across parts of northwest Ohio and southeast Michigan, with people flocking in the night to find bottled water, businesses forced to close for days and residents wanting answers.

“Our water is safe,” Mr. Collins said.

The advisory also brought national attention to Toledo and Lake Erie, where the presence of toxic algae blooms have become hot-button political and environmental issues.

Last spring, lawmakers unanimously passed Senate Bill 150, seen as a key step in addressing the nutrient-runoff problem considered to be major player in the recurrent toxic algal blooms on the lake. The law would require state certification for the application of chemical fertilizers on farms of 50 or more noncontigiuous acres.

Toledo leaders on Monday said the cost of dealing with the water crisis was high, but they said they do not yet know a dollar amount for all the overtime, tests and supplies.

And there were those who doubted the city’s news that the water is safe to drink.

“I‘m not believing it,” said Marcie Hubbell of Maumee, who pulled up alongside her daughter’s vehicle after getting a case of water at a distribution site Monday morning. “I am not going to drink tap water for a while, until I am certain. I don‘t think we go from where we were to the advisory lifted just because. You got to take into account what’s been happening, look at the whole picture. Look at what people are saying on the Internet. It’s not good.”

The level in two samples of water taken by city employees — which triggered the advisory — was found to be approaching 1.0 parts per billion in one and just over 1.0 ppb in the other, Mr. Collins said. While there is no state or federally mandated limit for microcystin, the potentially deadly toxin in a harmful form of blue-green algae known as microcystis, the World Health Organization has recommended that the drinking water concentration be kept at 1.0 ppb or less.

Ed Moore, Toledo‘s director of public utilities, said the city could not have prevented what happened over the weekend, because algae bloomed right over the city’s water intake plant.

The city on Monday released a 72-page report looking at the water advisory. In cited a number of factors that contributed to a microcystin finding. Chemists at the Collins Park Water Treatment Plant said they found a microcystin reading early evening Friday, and that finding prompted leaders to notify the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency. An advisory was issued at 2 a.m. Saturday.

A troubling issue was that Collins Park chemists found inconsistencies in the data. The report said the city then embarked on a three-day mission to verify the results by reaching out to independent analysts, a water treatment plant in Oregon, and a variety of laboratories.

After the ban was lifted, residents were told to flush their water systems if they had not used water since Saturday. Those who had used water regularly since the advisory were told they could use the system immediately.

Ohio Gov. John Kasich, and Ohio EPA director Craig Butler, released statements Monday. They both commended city, state and federal leaders for their work.

”They made a big difference. Over the past two days we’ve been reminded of the importance of our crown jewel — Lake Erie — to our everyday lives. We must remain vigilant in our ongoing efforts to protect it,” Mr. Kasich said.

Mr. Butler said in part: “In the days ahead, we will continue to work closely with Toledo and others to better understand what happened and support their effort to supply safe drinking water to its customers.”

Microcystin is the same toxin that killed 75 people in a kidney dialysis center in Brazil in 1995, prompting a major investigation by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

More chemicals, such as powdered activated carbon, have been added to the water-treatment process to bring down the levels inside Toledo’s plant. Mr. Collins said Monday that the algae issue was one that needed more serious attention.

“We have not been good stewards of that natural resource,” he said.

The Block News Alliance consists of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and The Blade of Toledo, Ohio. Tom Henry and Nolan Rosenkrans are reporters for The Blade.

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