The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The toxin that shut off Toledo’s water? The feds don’t make you test for it.

A sample glass of Lake Erie water is photographed near the Toledo water intake crib in Lake Erie. (Haraz N. Ghanbari/Associated Press)
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Doug Keller is the water guy in Sandusky, Ohio. He’s had a rough week.

He runs the small city’s water treatment plant, which draws drinking water from troubled Lake Erie. The plant sits just 60 miles downstream from Toledo. What happens to Toledo’s water — good or bad, and right now it’s bad — usually finds its way to Keller’s plant.

So he was spooked last weekend when Toledo issued a rare “do not use the water” warning for its 500,000 customers. Toledo’s water treatment plant had sucked up a bloom of a blue-green algae and, along with it, a worryingly high level of algal cyanotoxins — stuff so potent that the military has studied its potential to be weaponized. Now, the toxin was in Toledo’s taps.

Keller rushed to test Sandusky’s drinking water.

But he didn’t have to.

There are no national standards for algal cyanotoxin in drinking water. U.S. utilities don’t need to test for it. How widespread the toxin is in drinking water is a mystery. Monitoring is voluntary. And even when water companies do look for the toxins, how and when the testing is done varies, opening the door to inconsistent results. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for years has discussed drafting rules to cover cyanotoxins but hasn’t acted.

The lack of national standards didn’t cause Toledo’s water crisis. But it made the problem  more complicated. It made it harder for people to know whether the water was truly safe for cooking, bathing and drinking. And with these algal blooms predicted to worsen in Lake Erie and other lakes and reservoirs — thanks to a mix of global warming, invasive species and pollution — the issue is expected to pop up more often. Some believe Toledo could be a tipping point.

“I would bet that very soon we are going to have national guidelines” on these toxins, said Jeffrey M. Reutter, director of the Ohio Sea Grant College Program. “It would be a wise move.”

In Sandusky, Keller wasn’t going to wait for direction.

Hours after Toledo issued its warning in the wee hours Saturday, Keller ordered a test of his city’s supply. And he continued to test every day last week.

“The confidence of my customers has been shaken,” said Keller, whose official title is water services superintendent.

The scary toxin inside blue-green algae blooms is called microcystin. It targets the liver, where it can accumulate and clog. It can cause diarrhea and nausea. Dogs have died after ingesting blooms in tainted lakes. So have cows and horses. Human deaths are rare. In 1996, 130 dialysis patients in Brazil were sickened by microcystin-tainted water, and at least 50 died.

So with no U.S. rules on microcystin, a handful of states have tried filling the regulatory void. Ohio unveiled its own drinking-water testing strategy in 2011, when it became painfully clear that harmful blooms were going to be a regular summertime force.

But even under Ohio’s guidelines, Keller needed to test Sandusky’s water for cyanotoxins only on a weekly basis and only when a bloom was spotted nearby. This year, just to be safe, Keller began in early May to test Sandusky’s water every week, bloom or no bloom. He’d tested on the Tuesday before Toledo’s water crisis. All was clear. But four days had passed. Keller worried.

Sandusky doesn’t have the tools to test its own water for cyanotoxins. Detecting the toxin is not a simple process, one reason that federal regulators has been reluctant to issue national standards.

Sandusky ships its samples to other utilities. Usually Keller has someone — his lab guy, his maintenance man, whoever has a free moment — drive water samples to Elyria, Ohio, about 45 minutes away. But Elyria’s lab guy was out of town earlier last week. So samples went to the town of Oregon, just outside Toledo.

Like most utilities, Sandusky grabs water for testing in two places: Just after it is collected, called “in the raw,” and again after treatment, what’s known as finished water.

Results come back in one day. Monday’s test showed the Sandusky plant was sucking up raw water with .41 parts per billion of microcystin. The blue-green muck was there. But that level wasn’t alarming. It was below the World Health Organization’s recommended limit of 1.0 parts per billion in drinking water. And after standard water treatment, Sandusky’s levels were undetectable. The finished water was clean.

Tuesday’s results showed the bloom intensifying: .61 parts per billion in the raw water. But again, the water flowing into taps was clear.

Sandusky also examines its water under a microscope three times a week. A treatment plant worker places a droplet on a slide and hunts for black globs sticking together in the distinctive shape of microcystins. It’s an inexact method, but it gives Keller a better idea of what’s going on in Lake Erie.

Beating back microcystin surges is not hard for most water treatment plants. In Sandusky, Keller treats the water with alum, which clings to the toxic particles, dropping them like weights for disposal. He adds powdered activated carbon to absorb any remaining toxin. That seems to do the trick.

Maybe if water flowing into the Sandusky plant reached a catastrophic 10 parts per billion for microcystin, “I don’t know if we can handle that,” Keller said, adding, “I don’t want to try.”

But the blue-green algae bloom now floating in Lake Erie is not severe. In fact, it’s considered a moderate case. In 2011, the lake was hit by a much worse bloom. And area water systems handled it without incident.

That’s what makes the Toledo’s current trouble so interesting. Experts are curious why Toledo wasn’t able to prevent the toxins from reaching taps. Heidi Griesmer, spokeswoman for the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, said state officials were investigating the cause. Toledo officials didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment.

Something went wrong, said Wayne Carmichael, a retired biology professor from Wright State University in Dayton, who has studied microcystins for years and informally consulted with federal officials about Toledo’s water problem.

“They seem to have missed the bloom,” Carmichael said. “I’m sure they were taken by surprise.”

But Lake Erie blooms are forecast, like the weather. During the summer, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration produces weekly heat maps showing “harmful algal blooms” in Lake Erie. One day before Toledo issued its “no use” order, a new map went up. The water near Toledo glowed an angry red.

“They ought to be testing every couple of days so you don’t miss an event like this,” Carmichael said.

Problems exist with the testing, too. There are different protocols. Toledo’s water officials used one method. State officials used another. In the first days of the water crisis, different levels were detected. Some were fine. Others were alarming. It was confusing. Was the water safe?

“Different labs used different processes,” Griesmer said.

As Toledo officials tried explaining in the city’s preliminary report on the incident: “Inconsistencies exist because of conflicting parameters for sampling and analyzing microcystin levels caused by Harmful Algal Blooms.”

The U.S. EPA jumped in. Working with Ohio officials, it developed a new standard testing method for Ohio utilities.

“So we can know we can feel confident” in the results, Griesmer said.

That advice quickly was passed around to  other water treatment plants in Ohio. Keller got his copy  Tuesday.

Federal officials are considering drinking water rules for microcystin and other cyanotoxins. In June, the U.S. EPA hosted a meeting in Arlington, Va., to talk about taking the next step for cyanotoxins and other water contaminants, such as the farming insecticide ethoprop. Adding to the federal Safe Drinking Water Act takes years. But at the meeting, EPA officials discussed a new test for microcystin. That could help speed along the process.

“We need national monitoring,” said Alan Roberson of the industry group American Water Works Association.

In the meantime, Keller keeps a watchful eye on Sandusky’s water. He’s been running the water plant for 20 years. The challenges have piled up. A few years ago, it was zebra mussels, an invasive species that clogged the intake pipes. Then lake dead zones. Now, it’s blue-green algae.

“Never a dull moment,” he said.

He’s pricing out buying Sandusky’s own cyanotoxin-testing machine. He figures the problem is going to be around for a long time.

And he just got back the latest daily test results.

Sandusky’s water, for now, is clean.