Great Lakes Report Shows States Vary in Water Quality Testing Criteria

March 10, 2004

People who fish or swim in the Great Lakes are getting inconsistent information about whether their activities are safe depending on which state they ask, an environmental group said Wednesday.

The Rockefeller Family Fund's Environmental Integrity Project recently looked at how six Great Lakes states assess aquatic health and determine when to issue fish safety advisories or "no swimming" warnings.

For example, the results show that people fishing on Lake Erie for carp, catfish and whitefish will get different information on whether it's safe to eat these fish depending on whether they are in Ohio or Michigan.

"Same fish, same lake, different advice," said Ilan Levin, counsel for the group and author of the report. "If not for the fact that these are deadly and serious health concerns, the inaccuracies would be almost comical."

The report said states often do not declare their waters are "unswimmable" even after public health authorities have closed beaches because of pathogens.

States also test for different bacteria when determining whether it's safe to swim. Since 1986, the Environmental Protection Agency has recommended that states test for E. coli, but only Ohio, Michigan and Indiana have E. coli standards. The other Great Lakes states – Illinois, Minnesota and Wisconsin – determine whether it's safe to swim based on testing for fecal matter.

In addition to these different standards, the states also use different testing methodologies, the report said.

In Ohio, researchers test the health of fish and insects that live in the lake or river in addition to testing for chemicals in the water. The other states do not mandate "biological testing."

State testing on the lakes and rivers that make up the Great Lakes basin are submitted every two years to EPA, which then releases its Water Quality Inventory. The environmental group challenged the accuracy of that report, saying state standards are not uniform enough to put together an accurate federal assessment.

The group was founded by Eric Schaeffer, a former EPA enforcement official who resigned in 2002 to protest White House policy on anti-pollution efforts at power plants that violate clean air laws. Also contributing to the report was the Joyce Foundation, a Great Lakes environmental group based in Chicago.

Source: The Associated Press