I-TEAM: Could it happen here? The Untold Story of the Toledo Water Crisis

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CLEVELAND - A FOX 8 I-Team investigation raises troubling questions about both the standards and the equipment used to test the water from Lake Erie.

In early August, close to half a million people living in or near Toledo couldn't drink their water for an entire weekend because of fears that an algae bloom on Lake Erie had rendered their water toxic.

Cleveland and Northeast Ohio also gets its drinking water from Lake Erie.

The lake is shallower off Toledo than it is off Cleveland, which may help explain why Toledo faces more problems from algae blooms.

Still, it is certainly possible that Cleveland could have a problem, and a behind-the-scenes look at the experience from the weekend in Toledo is not reassuring.

"We had no manual, we had nothing to tell us how to handle this experience," said Toledo Mayor D. Michael Collins during an interview with the I-Team.

Mayor Collin says his frustration that weekend, when people in his city had to line up to receive bottled water because they couldn't drink out of their taps, was hard to overstate.

"I have a half a million people looking to me to give them an answer," Mayor Collins says, "and the answer I could possibly give is we've got a bunch of idiots trying to figure this out."

Toledo's local water authorities had raised the alarm that the drinking water contained too much "microcystin" - a toxin that can cause liver and stomach problems.

Yet Mayor Collins describes a scene - including a conference call - where local, state and federal scientists couldn't agree on what the proper testing methods were, or what constituted a safe level of microcystin.

"I couldn't believe there was no standard test," the Mayor says.

Asked if there was no agreed-upon standard until the weekend of the emergency, Ohio EPA Director Craig Butler says, "I think there was some confusion."

Butler says Ohio EPA had issued "guidelines" statewide, but that they "specifically did not address some of the issues we had to deal with...in the middle of the crisis in Toledo."

To this day, there still in no federal standard for what is a safe level of microcystin, although Susan Hedman, the Great Lake Program Manager for the U.S. EPA told the I-Team "that is certainly a topic of discussion and the agency is certainly looking at that."

Cleveland's water remained safe that weekend, and the city's Interim Water Commissioner, Alex Margevicius, said it wasn't clear that some of the results about Toledo's water could be believed.

"I do know they're wondering if any of the tests were false positives," Margevicius said that weekend.

A "false positive" would be a test that showed their was a problem with the drinking water when there really was not.

How could that possibly happen?

We got an insight into water testing during a tour of the lab at the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District.

The district does not test drinking water, but it does test the beach water around northeast Ohio for toxins - including the beaches on Lake Erie.

The standard testing is done on a piece of equipment called a microplate reader that costs about $10,000.

How accurate is it?

"The accuracies just on the standard alone are plus or minus 25 percent," says Mark Citriglia, the Sewer District's Analytical Services Manager.

That means, Citriglia told us, that one out of four times, the results could be wrong.

He added that scientists routinely run multiple tests to increase the odds of accurate readings, and that extra work almost always makes the readings reliable.

And Citriglia said a "false positive" is the second worst outcome, but the worst would be a "false negative" because that would me "we (are saying) that toxin is not out there (on the lake) and it really is."

He added that if his scientists could use a top-of-the-line mass spectrometer to test the water, "the accuracy and identification (of toxins) would be extremely easy."

A "mass spec" costs over $300,000, but Citriglia's boss says it is a good investment.

Julius Ciaccia, the Executive Director of the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District, says what he has learned recently convinced him that the equipment is needed right now.

"We're spending millions and millions assuring the quality of Lake Erie," Ciaccia says, "and yes, this would definitely be a good investment."

In fact, the I-Team has learned that the sewer district plans to buy a "mass spec" almost immediately so it is in place by next year's beach season.

But Ciaccia says, way beyond the equipment, we have to change how we treat Lake Erie if we want to avoid future toxic blooms.

"This was a failure of government at every level," he says, "(because) we had to know this day was coming. And it came."

Ciaccia says there is now an opportunity for government and industry - specifically, agriculture (fertilizer runoff is believed to be a major contributor to the lake's algae blooms) to come together and solve the problem.

But, he warns, we better hurry.

"We want to attract people to this region," Ciaccia says, "(and) we can't do that with the reputation of having the worst beaches and the worst water year after year."

"We have to change that image."

Watch Tuesday at 6 p.m.: THE I-TEAM LOOKS AT POSSIBLE SOLUTIONS TO THE ALGAE BLOOM PROBLEM.