Every summer, harmful algae blooms begin to form in lakes and ponds across Ohio, turning bodies of water into oxygen-deprived pools, toxic to humans and animals. Algae blooms thrive in years with more rain and more runoff pollution, and this year could be another bad one. In addition to another warmer, wetter summer, would-be polluters know the Environmental Protection Agency will not be watching.
"EPA is announcing a temporary policy regarding EPA enforcement of environmental legal obligations during the COVID-19 pandemic," the EPA stated in a March 26 press release. "Under the policy, EPA does not expect to seek penalties for noncompliance with routine monitoring and reporting obligations that are the result of the COVID-19 pandemic but does expect operators of public water systems to continue to ensure the safety of our drinking-water supplies."
A month before this announcement, the EPA established an enforceable limit of the Total Maximum Daily Load of phosphates and runoff that contaminate waterways. This was a major step toward reducing toxic algae blooms and restoring the health of the state's water; phosphates and agricultural runoff are a major contributor to the yearly blooms, and the Lake Erie watershed supplies the drinking water to 11 million people. However, critics say this non-enforcement policy appears to undo some of Ohio's recent progress, and Gov. Mike DeWine's $172 million H2Ohio plan to restore the lake faces budget cuts because of the COVID-19 crisis.
The EPA did not agree to an interview for this report but referred to its press release, which cited concerns for employees' health as the reason this policy was enacted.
"EPA is committed to protecting human health and the environment, but recognizes challenges resulting from efforts to protect workers and the public from COVID-19 may directly impact the ability of regulated facilities to meet all federal regulatory requirements," EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said in the same press release. "This temporary policy is designed to provide enforcement discretion under the current, extraordinary conditions, while ensuring facility operations continue to protect human health and the environment."
The Natural Resource Defense Council sued the EPA for using COVID-19 as a reason to stop reporting pollution at a time when the public's health already is at additional risk.
Jon Devine, NRDC senior attorney, said these rollbacks mostly benefit polluters such as oil and gas companies, major developers and the mining industry, which would rather not invest in pollution controls.
"These industries have fought strong protections under the Clean Water Act for decades, and unfortunately, this rule gives them exactly that - a federal government that's prepared to look the other way at companies polluting and destroying water bodies that are critical to the watersheds," he said in an Instagram live conference discussing recent rollbacks and the lawsuits to stop them.
Joseph Ortiz, a geology professor at Kent State University, studies the changes in the algae blooms over time, how they grow in different conditions, and where the hot spots are. His lab uses NASA satellite imaging to follow and predict the next bloom, which is essential to helping communities prepare.
"Harmful algae blooms are a growing problem in Ohio, and the world actually," he said. "The reason why these blooms are a concern is because many of them can form toxins, for instance, either liver toxins or neurotoxins, or skin irritants."
The Clean Water Act was passed in 1972, following the infamous Cuyahoga River fire. Since then it has served to protect and restore waterways across the country. However, critics say the nonenforcement policy threatens the very core value of the act.
Recent research from Harvard Medical Center shows that residents in areas with heavy air pollution are 8% more likely to die from COVID-19. An analysis of this data by Kristi Pullen Fedinick, senior scientist and director of science and data for the NRDC, examined the relationship between locations with high COVID-19 death rates (as of Apr. 26) and locations with high levels of air pollution. She found areas of the country in chronic violation of the Clean Air Act also have the highest risk of the coronavirus. One of these places is Cuyahoga County, which has a history of poor air quality.
Last year, the American Lung Association ranked Cleveland as the ninth most-polluted city in the nation for year-round particle pollution. Its annual report card for cities across the country is based on particle pollution; Cuyahoga County received an F for its high-ozone days, and a B for 24-hour particle pollution.
Communities that suffered the longest from pollution also are the most affected by the coronavirus now, according to the report. Exposure to air and water pollution over time has been linked to health conditions such as heart disease, respiratory problems, birth defects, increased risk of cancer and damage to kidneys, liver and other organs, and studies have cited structural racism and decades of housing discrimination as playing a role in who is most exposed to pollution.
"Any time you talk about rolling back these kinds of regulatory requirements, it's a real red flag and a concern," said state Sen. Nickie Antonio, D-Lakewood. "They're saying they're protecting workers, but who's going to protect the public and the public health of communities?"
Ortiz said the self-reporting methods used in the past weren't always effective. The Total Maximum Daily Load Ohio set in February this year was supposed to be a solution.
"[TMDL] is something that's been talked about for several decades now, in Ohio, and the approach that's been used is to allow voluntary monitoring and voluntary limits. Unfortunately, that hasn't resulted in a decrease in the amount of nutrients ending up in the river," he said. "And multiple studies have shown that to get these blooms under control we need to cut the nutrients into the lake by about 40% to 50%."
Antonio described one instance where she fought to investigate a hydraulic fracturing company that was caught dumping into Lake Erie's tributaries. Although the crime was reported and investigated, the company only had to pay a fine for dumping an undisclosed list of chemicals.
"They knew that ultimately, it's not that tough of a price to pay if they get caught, to have to have a fine," she said.
While many researchers and organizations are working to protect the lake, Ortiz said, a large change like this needs to be solved with big thinking that addresses the larger issues of pollution.
"There are things that we can do personally to make a difference, and we should," he said, "but with any environmental problems, it's really important to deal with these from a systemic standpoint.
"The single most important thing we can do is vote, and vote for individuals who are willing to listen to sound science and legislate on the basis of what needs to be done to fix the system."
While many Americans are worrying about their job and the recession, environmental regulations can slip through the cracks. But these regulations are in place to prevent another public health crisis.
"My fear are things like this," said Antonio. "What's been out of the news? The environment. What were we talking about, Greta Thunberg, what was it a year ago? [Last year's] Earth Day, kids were walking out of their high schools, and really talking about 'pay attention to the Earth' and 'I want a future'... and now we've got the actual opposite happening. And it's using the opportunity, I think, they use the opportunity of pandemic when everyone's distracted to just make it a lot easier to not have regulations."