Last summer, visitors to the Illinois River near Illini State Park were warned to stay away from the water because of a spike in dangerous algae.
It was a health hazard then, blamed on toxic run-off from fertilized farm fields, and it likely will be a health hazard again this summer. The threat is all the more certain — and greater than ever — now that the Trump administration, on Tuesday, announced that it intends to roll back clean water protections across the country.
The greater danger posed is not only to the Illinois River, but to every waterway in Illinois, from the smallest streams to Lake Michigan, the source of our drinking water.
To counter the Trump administration’s action, we urge the Illinois House to pass a bill that already has cleared the state Senate, SB 2213. It would override any weakening of environmental protections by the Trump administration.
The Trump administration proposes to kill — following a mandatory 90-day waiting period for public comment — long-standing federal rules that limit the runoff of pesticides, fertilizer and industrial pollutants into millions of acres of wetlands and thousands of miles of streams across the country.
In Illinois, the new flood of contaminants would be sure to work its way into Downstate public drinking water systems and eventually into major rivers and the Great Lakes, which already are plagued by toxic algae blooms fed by nutrients running off of farmland.
The pollutants that despoil Illinois would do damage even some 900 miles to the south, in the Gulf of Mexico. As the No. 1 source of agricultural runoff to the Upper Mississippi River, Illinois contributes significantly to a dead zone at the mouth of the great river.
The Trump plan would overturn restrictions that prohibit farmers from plowing and planting some types of crops near small streams and wetlands — and require them to get permits to use chemical pesticides and fertilizer that might run off into that water. The idea is to curry favor with farmers at the expense of the environment and public health.
The Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition, which includes more than 155 major environmental, conservation, outdoor recreation organizations, community groups, zoos and aquariums, warns that the Trump administration’s proposed actions threaten the health of more than 30 million people in eight states, including Illinois.
Pesticide, fertilizer and industrial pollution starts as soon as a contaminant hits the ground. The surest way to limit their impact is to keep them out of small streams and wetlands.
“By removing protections for those small waters where [runoff] enters the water you are effectively killing protections for all of our waters,” Joel Brammeier, president and CEO of the Alliance for the Great Lakes, told us Tuesday. “Keeping those small streams and wetlands healthy and clean is an excellent way to keep water clean generally in the Great Lakes. This is going to make it harder to protect water in the Midwest states.”
In the Illinois River last summer, algae blooms gave off a toxin that can be absorbed through the skin, inhaled as a mist or swallowed, causing rashes, hives, diarrhea, vomiting, coughing and wheezing. In some cases, the toxins can be fatal. Similarly, residents of Toledo, Ohio, were warned four years ago not to drink from municipal water supplies because of a toxic bloom fed by agricultural runoff in western Lake Erie.
As for pesticides specifically, some of them can’t be removed from drinking water and are not even tested for, said Jennifer Walling, executive director of the Illinois Environmental Council.
If the Trump administration’s proposed rule changes are finalized, it will mark the biggest rollback in clean water protection since the Clean Water Act was adopted in 1972.
Jon Devine, director of federal water policy at the Natural Resources Defense Council, warned that it will vastly expand the areas where industries can discharge pollutants and power plans can discharge toxins and build ash dumps. It will free up the fracking industry to build more open-air toxic wastewater pits, and it will allow developers to fill in the wetlands or small streams that are a bulwark against contaminated water.
Environmental groups undoubtedly will sue the Trump administration, alleging an unreasonable interpretation of the Clean Water Act.
In the meantime, Illinois officials can take fast action now to protect our state’s waters, come what may from the Trump administration.
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