Environmental group south of the border suing government over Lake Erie algae

Dead fish in green, algae-filled waters

Lake Erie is in rough shape these days, and some environmental groups believe they have identified a culprit: the American government. The environmentalists are suing the Environmental Protection Agency for violating the Clean Water Act because they have not classified the lake as “impaired.”

For years, Lake Erie has been plagued by algae that thrives on the agricultural waste and sewage that gets dumped there. The algae has led to a shortage of drinkable water in nearby towns, and the lake is not considered safe for fishing or swimming. The coalition that is suing the EPA has argued that this means at least portions of the lake must be listed as impaired and made subject to more rigorous environmental restrictions.

The Alliance for the Great Lakes wrote in a statement, “The Clean Water Act requires states to determine if their waterways are clean enough to provide safe drinking water, fishing, and swimming. If they do not, the waterways must be listed as ‘impaired.’ Western Lake Erie clearly meets the definition of impaired.”

Satellite view of the lake and algae blooms
Photo courtesy of NASA
A satellite image shows the extent of the algae blooms in the lake.

Proposals have been submitted to the EPA for listing portions of the lake as impaired, which, under the Clean Water Act, the EPA is required to respond to within 30 days. This deadline has not been met.

Lake Erie has a long history of issues with pollution and algal blooms. In the 1960s, the lake was declared “dead,” and was so polluted that it actually caught fire several times. The lake’s polluted state actually helped to inspire the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency itself, and after the implementation of the Clean Water Act in 1972, conditions in the lake improved. However, the runoff of fertilizer into the lake in recent years has fuelled the explosion of algae, which grows easily in the warm, shallow water Lake Erie is known for.

In 2011, the highest levels of algae ever were recorded in the lake. The environmental groups suing the government hope that by pushing the EPA to act, they can reverse the spread.

“By failing to make a decision about Ohio’s impaired waters list, EPA is kicking the can down the road,” the Alliance for the Great Lakes stated. “Now, we are holding them accountable.”