US, Canada vow to reduce phosphorous pollution in Lake Erie

By Whitney Forman-Cook

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WASHINGTON, Feb. 22, 2016 - The United States and Canada have agreed to develop plans that would reduce the amount of phosphorous pollution entering Lake Erie by 40 percent, based on 2008 loading levels.

EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy says the targets that she and Canada's Environment and Climate Change Minister Catherine McKenna have committed to will curtail the incidence and severity of low oxygen “dead zones” in the water - which kill aquatic creatures that require oxygen - and toxic algal blooms, which pose serious human health concerns.

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The agreement announced today is a re-up on the countries' 2012 Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, which set out to curb the amount of toxic and nuisance algae in Lake Erie. Canada and the U.S. will both develop domestic action plans by February 2018 to ensure the new targets are met.

“To protect public health, we must restore the Great Lakes for all those who depend on them,” McCarthy said in a release. “The first step in our urgent work together to protect Lake Erie from toxic algae, harmful algal blooms, and other effects of nutrient runoff, is to establish these important phosphorus limits. But, establishing these targets is not the end of our work together. We are already taking action to meet them.”

Although not necessarily harmful to humans or aquatic life, algae have created a number of public health and environmental concerns in Lake Erie since the 1990s. In 2011, toxic algae, containing microcystin, rendered 400,000 residents around Toledo, Ohio, without clean drinking water for days. Last summer, the lake saw the largest bloom recorded during this century.

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Scientists say harmful algal blooms are more common, particularly in western Lake Erie, because of phosphorous pollution flowing into the lake from farms. Sewage treatment plants and stormwater drains also contribute to the problem, experts say.

To determine the reduction targets, more than 40 experts from the U.S. and Canada used models to graph changes in phosphorous levels against levels of algal growth. Public comment on the goals was elicited last summer, and more than 50 government and academic reviewers in Canada commented on the proposal.

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