Autoworkers, Agribusiness, and Algae: Toledo Back in Business, For Now

by J.Emerson
autoworkers agribusiness and algae toledo back in business for now

Toledo, Ohio has just squeaked by a major environmental crisis. A toxic algae bloom in Lake Erie poisoned the city’s water supply, leaving over 400,000 residents high and dry for three days. Restaurants, schools and businesses closed, the National Guard trucked in water, and the governor declared a state of emergency. Meanwhile, Fiat-Chrysler had to resort to creative measures to keep its Toledo Jeep plant running.

Operations stayed on track at the Toledo complex, thanks to some quick thinking by management, and the dedication of line workers. According to a company spokesman, the plant used tanker trucks and bottled water to overcome the crisis and keep 5,000 employees sufficiently hydrated. Even a short closure of the plant would have been bad news for FCA. The Cherokee and the Wrangler are among the company’s fastest-selling and most profitable models, accounting for a major chunk of the partnership’s recent run into the black.

With the ban on tap water now lifted, the worst of the crisis seems to be over. Even so, the threat to the Lake Erie watershed and the millions of people who depend on it still looms. Toledo’s water was poisoned with microcystin, a byproduct of blue-green algae. The toxin causes liver failure at fairly low concentrations. It’s difficult to filter out, especially at high concentrations. And it can’t be removed via boiling- that only concentrates the poison. In other words, it’s a public health nightmare and nearly as bad for business as a power outage. Preventing the blue-green algae is the only realistic prophylactic, which itself has been a decades-long struggle in the most polluted of the Great Lakes.

Blue-green algae primarily feeds off phosphorous and other organic pollutants. In the 60s and 70s, the primary source of these pollutants were the cities and industrial establishments on the Lake Erie shore. Untreated sewage and industrial byproducts choked the lake, eventually leading to fish kills and toxic blooms. The situation turned around in the 80s, after regulation and billion-dollar cleanups helped remedy the pollution. In the 90s, though, the situation began to reverse course. New farming techniques relied on heavy application of phosphorous and other fertilizers. This produced increased yields, but increased the inflow of organic pollutants into the lake. Zebra mussels also invaded the lake after 1988, producing more phosphorous and contributing to a vicious cycle of algae production. It wasn’t long until the algae blooms reared their ugly heads yet again.

In 2011, Lake Erie suffered one of its worst blooms ever. Nearly a sixth of the lake’s surface was covered in algae, almost 2,000 square miles. Phosphorous was again the culprit, but it alone wasn’t enough to explain the bloom’s severity. Instead, scientists point to climate change: specifically, the warming of Lake Erie’s waters. Warm water combined with torrential rains produced the catastrophic algae bloom, as more pollutants washed into Lake Erie from farmland. Scientists now fear that a combination of pollutants and changes in Lake Erie’s ecology could lead to more frequent algal bloom events. Unless something is done to rein in the green tide, more drinking water bans could be in the future for the communities that draw their supply from the lake.

What does that mean for the regional auto industry? Several major auto plants and their suppliers operate in the Lake Erie watershed area, in cities like Cleveland, Detroit, and Toledo. In addition, much of Lake Erie is a major commercial route for freight shipping. Many parts of the automobile production process are highly water-intensive, such as painting and steelmaking. Obviously, the standards for drinking water and water for industrial uses are quite different. But if a city like Cleveland is forced to shut down its water treatment system entirely in response to an algal bloom, it would spell big trouble for automakers with facilities in the area. The welfare of the workers is another factor to consider. Toledo Jeep dodged a bullet this time, but in future water crises it might not be so lucky.

The economic vitality of the Lake Erie region depends on ensuring the health of the lake. That became apparent after the infamous 1969 Cuyahoga River fire, which embarrassed Ohio residents and hurt the local economy. There’s been an enormous amount of progress since then, but new technologies present new challenges. Clamping down on the algae blooms is essential to ensuring the competitiveness of the industries around Lake Erie. The environment and the industrial world are never completely divorced from one another.

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  • Kincaid Kincaid on Aug 05, 2014

    Thank you for one of the best article I have read regarding the algal blooms in Lake Erie. An important part of this history is that the blooms came back after corn for alcohol was invented. The price for corn is so high that anything that increases yield is justifiable. Farmers plowed up stream bank buffers and roadside ditches to plant as much corn as possible. Fields were over fertilized to increase the yield per acre. The result is that the features that protect rivers and streams were destroyed and combined with greater rainfall events the fertilizer washes into Lake Erie in ever increasing quantities. The day has come where agriculture must be regulated like industry. It is not fair for ag to destroy the water and then expect the taxpayers to clean it up at their expense.

  • Brettc Brettc on Aug 06, 2014

    So why exactly was Ontario not affected? If we factor in lawn chemicals as being a source for the algae bloom, does that mean that the pesticide ban in Ontario is actually doing some good? I'm assuming Ohio and the neighbouring states still allow lawn chemicals but am too lazy to look it up.

    • See 1 previous
    • Psarhjinian Psarhjinian on Aug 06, 2014

      One, Ontario banned (some) phosphates and certain pesticides; at least more than Ohio. That does help a lot. Two, there's not much on the Ontario side of the Erie shore; it's mostly rural or suburban; there's no centres like Toledo, Greater Detroit, Buffalo or Cleveland; Leamington and Port Colborne might be as big as it gets.

  • Alan I do believe that traffic infringements penalties based on income will affect those who are financial able to flout safety regulations.When I drive above the posted speed limit I assess my situation using probability. If I'm confronted with a situation where time is of more value to me than speed I will speed if I assess the probability of a fine to be quite low. I can afford the fine, what I can't afford is the loss of points on my drivers licence.In Australia (12 points in QLD and all States have a point system) we have a points system attached to your drivers licence. An open drivers licence is granted 12 points every 3 years. So, if you receive an infringement for exceeding the speed limit it takes 3 years for the points to be removed. I generally get caught once every 2 years.I think a points system would be a fairer system over a system based on income. Its about retaining your licence and safety, not financial gain by the government.As you can see below it wouldn't take long for many US drivers to lose their drivers licence.[h2]Current penalties for individuals caught speeding[/h2]InfringementPenalty amountDemerit pointsLess than 11km/h over the speed limit$287. 1 pointAt least 11km/h but not more than 20km/h over the speed limit$431. 3 pointsMore than 20km/h but not more than 30km/h over the speed limit$646. 4 pointsMore than 30km/h but not more than 40km/h over the speed limit$1,078. 6 pointsMore than 40km/h over the speed limit$1,653. 8 points and 6 month suspension
  • Wjtinfwb Instead of raising fines, why don't the authorities enforce the laws and write tickets, and have judges enforce the penalty or sentence of a crime. I live across the street from an Elementary School on a 4-lane divided state highway. every morning the cop sits in his car and when someone sails through the School Zone well above the 10 mph limit, he merely hits his siren to get their attention but that's it. I've never, in 5 years, seen them get out of the car and actually stop and driver and confront them about speeding. As a result, no one pays attention and when the School Zone light is not lit, traffic flies by at 50-60 mph in the 45 zone. Almost no enforcement occurs until the inevitable crash, last year some zoned out girl rolled her beater Elantra 3 times. On a dry, straight, 4 lane road with a 45 mph limit. I'm no Angel and have a heavy foot myself. I've received my share of speeding tickets, lots of them when younger. Traffic enforcement in most locales has become a joke these days, jacking prices because someone has a higher income in as asinine as our stupid tax policy and non-existent immigration enforcement.
  • Jeff S If AM went away I would listen to FM but since it is insignificant in the cost to the car and in an emergency broadcast it is good to have. I agree with some of the others its another way to collect money with a subscription. AM is most likely to go away in the future but I will use AM as long as its around.
  • BEPLA I think it's cool the way it is.If I had the money, time and space - I'd buy it, clean it up, and just do enough to get it running properly.Then take it to Cars and Coffee and park it next to all the newer Mustangs.
  • Dave M. I suppose Jethro’s farm report comes via AM, but there’s a ton of alternative ways to get that info. Move forward people. Progress is never easy.