Wall Street Journal | Researchers Race to Thwart Algae Outbreaks
BY KRIS MAHER
Ed Weinberg thinks he has developed the best way to stop the toxic blooms of blue- green algae that have been fouling bodies of water from the Florida Everglades to the Great Lakes and beyond.
The algae feed on phospho-rus from farms and wastewa- ter treatment plants that makes its way into rivers and lakes. Mr. Weinberg’s solution deploys tiny beads of engi- neered resin that can absorb the mineral from water and extract it for reuse.
“It’s simple yet elegant chemistry,” said Mr. Weinberg, a chemical engineer who is among the finalists in a $10 million competition that is one of a number of both public and private efforts to solve a grow- ing problem in U.S. waterways. Researchers are racing to find solutions to outbreaks of blue-green algae that are in- creasing in frequency and se- verity. Carpets of stinking al- gae have sickened people and animals and hurt the fishing
and tourism industries.
Algae feed on phosphorus in rivers and lakes; a satellite image from September of an algae bloom in western Lake Erie.
In 2014, the drinking water for nearly half a million people in Toledo, Ohio, was contami- nated by the toxin microcystin produced by the algae.
“When you’re dealing with an issue as large and complex as we are right now, the more solutions the better,” said Christopher Winslow, who co- ordinates federal- and state- funded research into algal blooms at Ohio State University. He isn’t involved in the compe- tition, which is privately run.
Stopping the blooms is tak- ing on more urgency. In March, the Environmental Protection Agency announced a plan to meet a goal of cutting phos- phorus entering Lake Erie by 40% through voluntary efforts by 2025. Also last month, Ohio declared the shallow western basin of Lake Erie “impaired,” a step toward tighter regula- tions of phosphorus from
farms and wastewater plants. Algal blooms in Lake Erie were a problem in the 1960s. The blooms faded after regula- tions were implemented that required wastewater treatment
plants to cut phosphorus.
But in the mid-1990s the blooms returned, and they have been surging more re- cently. Today, scientists point to farm runoff as a major cause of blooms.
For Lake Erie, the Maumee and Sandusky rivers are the greatest contributors of phos- phorus, with 87% of phospho- rus coming from sources that include farms. Environmental groups want tighter limits on use of fertilizer, which typi- cally contains phosphorus.
“It’s time for the foot-drag- ging to come to an end,” said Howard Learner, president of the Environmental Law & Policy Center, based in Chicago, which sued the state of Ohio in federal court last year, ar- guing it should declare Lake Erie impaired. A ruling in that case is pending. “We know what causes it. It’s manure and excess fertilizer.”
Joe Cornely, a spokesman for the Ohio Farm Bureau Fed- eration, said farmers are taking steps to manage fertilizer more effectively. “We recognize that more needs to be done,” he said. “Our approach is, as soon as we figure out something that we know is going to work, let’s take that step.”
Researchers are exploring a variety of solutions. Some are working on ways to remove phosphorus from manure di- rectly. Others are testing ma- terials that could be inserted in drainage tiles under the soil on farms to remove phosphorus before it reaches rivers.
Mr. Weinberg, a 66-year-old from Richboro, Pa., outside Philadelphia, wanted a site with plenty of manure to test his technology last fall. He found a horse farm in Maryland with a pond thick with algae. He filled burlap sacks with his beads and put them in open crates, creat- ing a makeshift filter in a drainage creek that flowed into the Chesapeake Bay.
He said he was able to rep- licate his lab results for re- moving phosphorus.
The competition in which he is a finalist is offering a $10 million prize for the best phosphorus-removal technol- ogy. It is sponsored by the nonprofit Everglades Founda- tion and the Scotts Miracle- Gro Foundation, a charitable organization affiliated with the fertilizer company.