Right-to-Know

Forewarned: Environmental reporters are often the town criers on looming disasters

Image copyright The Blade / Library Archiving System.

Sometimes, we listen. Often, we don’t.

TOLEDO — “Lake Erie was an American environmental success story. Once on the verge of biological death from sewage, industrial pollutants and oxygen-depriving algae, the lake bounced back in the 1970s and ’80s, as tougher environmental laws took hold in the U.S. and Canada.

Then Erie began to backslide. By 1995, Tom Henry of the Toledo, Ohio, newspaper The Blade reported on the return of toxic algae that could threaten both human health and aquatic life. The algae led to beach closings and fishing restrictions, and have been blamed for eutrophication and a wide range of human ailments. The algae were present at manageable levels for nearly two decades, but the big comeback was fueled largely by phosphorus-based fertilizer running into the lake from farm fields, and was strongest in western Lake Erie, the shallowest and warmest area of the Great Lakes. In those first years, Henry says, his stories got little response from officials, but inspired local disc jockeys to turn “toxic algae” into morning radio skits.

In 2011, when Henry asked about concerns for contamination of the water supply for half a million metro residents, he got a reassuring answer: Among other tools, carbon filtration would keep the city’s Lake Erie water supply safe. Henry kept asking the question and reporting on the algae, which also posed a threat to swimmers and boaters. Since 1996, 270 stories with Henry’s byline that either mention or focus on algae appear in the Blade archives. He filed pieces on how climate change, mayflies or invasive zebra mussels could worsen the algae problem and how earthworms or runoff-absorbing plants could lessen it.

— Peter Dykstra, Environmental Health News

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