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Lake Erie's Toxic Algae: Does Ethanol Mandate Make it Worse?


Thursday, October 26, 2017   

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The huge algal bloom in Lake Erie is receding, but clean water advocates say the annual problem won't go away without changes in federal policies.

One measure raising concerns is the ethanol mandate, which requires a certain amount of corn-based ethanol to be blended into gasoline. According to David DeGennaro, agricultural policy specialist with the National Wildlife Federation, it has led to an increase in corn production, which in turn increases water pollution as farm nutrients, chemicals and soils run downstream and end up in Lake Erie.

"It's taken awhile for people to really realize what's going on and just what the stakes have been,” DeGennaro said. "It’s not just this policy alone that's contributing to all of these changes on the landscape and in water quality. But certainly this is one factor, and it's one that is government-driven through this mandate."

DeGennaro said farm runoff is the primary cause of toxic algae in Lake Erie, and noted excess fertilizer and manure are also to blame for dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico and other water bodies across the country.

It was just three years ago that a toxic algal bloom poisoned Toledo's drinking water supply.

Lake Erie Waterkeeper Executive Director Sandy Bihn said algal blooms are also harmful to the local economy. She said the sources need to be stopped to prevent further damage.

"If we can solve the problem in Lake Erie, we can prevent it from happening in the other Great Lakes,” Bihn said. "If the toxics and the runoff get in the system of those lakes, those lakes do not flush quickly, as Lake Erie does, and those problems will be far more long term and could potentially threaten the very viability of all the Great Lakes."

After initially saying the agency was considering lowering the mandate level, Environmental Protection Agency administrator Scott Pruitt reversed his position last week, announcing it would be kept in place and that he would consider allowing an increase of ethanol blended into the gas supply.

But DeGennaro said he's hopeful Congress will act on its own.

"There's interest with policy makers on Capitol Hill to change the policy,” he said. “And so we're expecting to see some action this fall in the House Committee of jurisdiction and then also a bill introduced in the Senate."

The ethanol mandate was passed in 2005 as a way to cut energy imports, reduce pollution and lower fuel costs. Its opponents say the policy could be reformed to advance clean fuels and protect public health, without polluting water or destroying habitat.

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