TOLEDO — Next up in Ohio's push to combat the harmful algae plaguing Lake Erie and other waterways around the state is a proposal to set new limits on wastewater plants.
The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency's idea is to remove more than 2 million pounds of algae-feeding phosphorus that's dumped into the state's rivers and streams each year.
It wants to force plants statewide to make upgrades to the treatment process. In most cases that would mean adding more chemicals to remove phosphorus in the wastewater. The agency projects there would be a slight cost increase for households across the state.
What's sure to be debated when the proposal goes before the state legislature early next year is whether the limits will make a difference and be worth the cost.
Some wastewater plant operators contend limiting their phosphorus discharges will make just a small dent and that the costs are unnecessary, especially for the smallest of plants that contribute little to the overall phosphorus amounts.
Applying the new limit to every wastewater plant will help some watersheds but not all, said James Gellner, president of the Ohio Water Environment Association, a group representing those in the wastewater business.
“The underlying question is, will this make a difference,” he said. “In a lot of cases, it doesn't.”
The state EPA's plan would affect nearly 1,700 wastewater plants. Those that discharge wastewater into Lake Erie already must meet the 1 milligram per liter standard the state is proposing.
“We ought to be treating them the same,” said Craig Butler, the agency's director, who added that states surrounding Ohio already have the lower discharge limits.
The cost of the new equipment and chemicals that would be needed varies on the size of the plant — larger ones might need to spend $100,000 while the price for smaller plants could be a couple thousand dollars, Butler said.
The total costs for all of the plants combined would be about $25 million, the EPA said.
Homeowners would see increases in their water bills of about $15-20 each year, the agency said, with residents served by the smaller municipal plants on the higher end.
“We think that's worth the investment,” Butler said.
Recent research has shown that agriculture is by far the biggest source of phosphorus flowing into the lake's western end where algae blooms have taken hold in recent years. It also shows that wastewater treatment plants and home septic tanks account for only a sliver of the phosphorus.
Marc Morgan, assistant manager of Canton's wastewater plant, said imposing the new discharge limits “seems to be a waste of a lot of money.”
“We're not the sole source of the phosphorus. That's the biggest concern the industry has,” he said. “The vast majority is from farming.”
The EPA director said the state's approach to slowing the algae that is a threat to drinking water and wildlife has been to look at all areas.
“Everybody has a stake in this problem and everybody should contribute,” he said.
Nathan Coey, utilities director in the central Ohio city of Pataskala, said he thinks the money needed for the EPA's plan would be better spent on upgrading pipes and other aging infrastructure.
He also feels proposed phosphorus limits will put a burden on smaller wastewater plants with limited budgets. “They are pinching the little guys a bit,” he said.
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