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Algae Toxins Make Toledo's Water Undrinkable


Authorities say it is now safe to drink the water in Toledo. That's an improvement from this past weekend, when Ohio authorities warned that the water was not safe for hundreds of thousands of customers. We're joined now by Kabir Bhatia of member station WKSU. He's been covering this story.

Welcome back to the program.

KABIR BHATIA, BYLINE: Thank you very much.

INSKEEP: OK, so earlier today, you were reminding us that the water was declared unsafe because of algae in Lake Erie, which is the source of the water. What's changed now?

BHATIA: Well, now they've done follow-up tests since the 30 they did over the weekend. Six follow-up tests - and all of them came back with levels of the toxin, or rather, safe levels of the toxin, that were within acceptable limits. And so now, they said at 11 a.m. the ban will be lifted and everything will be great, and you can drink the water, and the water's safe again.

INSKEEP: I want to understand - did authorities change something about the water situation, or did they just test again and find a better result?

BHATIA: They just tested again and found a better result. When the weather gets hot and or wet, as it has been this summer, that's what causes these algae blooms to start to become harmful and release the harmful toxin with fertilizer runoff coming into the lake and whatnot. When that happens, you really - it's a waiting game - and you have to make sure that the levels go back down to safe levels.

INSKEEP: So I want to understand what this tells us about Lake Erie because this was the source of Toledo's water that turned out to be a problem. This has been a problem lake at different points in the last several decades although it has been cleaned up over time as well. How bad is it?

BHATIA: Well, the algae blooms are there pretty regularly. It's a fairly common thing. But there have been periods where there's this sort of this green sludge that we've been talking about. It looks like something out of a horror movie or "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" and it gets into the lake, it gets really bad - it basically takes over. And it's one of these things that the entire state has been looking at for the last few years, trying to figure out a way to prevent this - sort of thing happened in the '70s and '80s and then they changed the concentrations of detergents and things like that; less phosphorus. And that really made the problem more manageable. But now, with the changing ways people fertilize and the changing types of fertilizer and other things - septic systems that might malfunction - that's caused this problem to become much greater in the last few years, so there's been research studies. And the entire state, Gov. Kasich even yesterday said, we've got to do something about this. The mayor said today that we've got to do something this. I think the quote was "Time to stop talking about the western basin and time to do something."

So it's really been on everyone's minds here in Ohio. And going forward, I think they're going to look for more long-term solutions than maybe they had before.

INSKEEP: Well, is it your sense that Toledo residents now think their water is fine? That hundreds of thousands of people are cheering this announcement and saying, bottoms up?

BHATIA: They are for the immediate few moments, but going forward, I think that it's going to be on people's minds more and more that this could happen again. And we need to make sure that it doesn't happen again.

INSKEEP: I'm thinking - you mentioned Ohio governor John Kasich. He said over the weekend I believe, that he did not want the water to be declared safe unless he felt that he could recommend it to his own family, that he'd be fine with his own family drinking the water. Should we assume that is the standard that Ohio authorities are holding the water to now? That it's fine for their own families to drink?

BHATIA: That's true, yeah. I'm not sure that Kasich's family is staked out the EPA testing the water for them, but definitely, officials want to make sure it was safe.

Yesterday, they had a partial lift where they said you could shower. And there was police and fire officials and they said, we're symbolically going to go to the YMCA, take a shower, just keep our eyes and mouth closed - that'll show that it's safe.

And then, today at the end of his press conference the mayor of Toledo, D. Michael Collins, he lifted a glass and drank a glass of Toledo water to show that yes, it is now safe and everybody can get back to drinking the tap water.

INSKEEP: OK. Kabir Bhatia is a reporter for our member station WKSU. Cheers.

BHATIA: Cheers, indeed. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kabir Bhatia