Ohio River Algae Bloom Going Away

Wheeling Intelligencer
27 September 2015
By Linda Comins. Staff Writer

WHEELING - A blue-green algae bloom that has affected the Ohio River for weeks has dissipated greatly in the Wheeling area, but officials said the underlying source of the problem may never be known.

The bloom, which was first spotted at the Pike Island Locks and Dam in mid-August, has made its way below Cincinnati in the Ohio River.

"From shore observations, things have greatly improved, but we do not have data from sampling done in the area. Most of the large mats of algae have moved south," Howard Gamble, administrator of the Wheeling-Ohio County Health Department, said.

Regarding the duration of the algae problem locally, Gamble said, "I think we will have it until we have a larger rainstorm to move the creeks or the Ohio River. ... But it has improved dramatically."

Water supplied by the Wheeling water department continues to be safe to drink, he said. Local health authorities are waiting for confirmational reports from investigating agencies on data regarding water quality.

At the height of the situation, local health departments issued advisories for residents to use caution when engaging in Ohio River activities and to keep pets out of the river and its tributaries.

Health authorities received no reports from emergency rooms or urgent care facilities of anyone becoming sick because of exposure to river water, Gamble said, nor have there been any reports of large fish kills that would signal high toxicity from algae.

Gamble told the Wheeling-Ohio Board of Health it might be "kind of difficult" to find the source that caused the blue-green algae bloom.

"Something came off between Weirton and the Pike Island Dam. Something fed into that algae," he said.

The algae, which was spotted as far north as the mouth of Buffalo Creek below Wellsburg, backed up when it reached the dam.

"It took a long time to get down (to the dam)," Gamble said.

Blue-green algae usually appears on the water surface and as far down as 8 inches, he said, adding Wheeling's water intake is below that level. Water departments along the river "take care of the algae component before the water is treated," he added.

Experts say blue-green algae grows when material with a high nutrient content enters a body of water. High temperatures and low rainfall -conditions prevalent in the Wheeling area in July and August - exacerbate the problem.

Benjamin Stout, a professor of biology at Wheeling Jesuit University, said algae can deplete water of oxygen and cause fish kills. The problem "is more prevalent in lakes than in rivers, but our river is getting a lot of use. There is a lot of water drawn from our river," he said.

"Heavy rainfall into already low-flow condition can stimulate unwanted growth of algae, be they blue-green or other," Stout added.

Toxins in algae could make water unfit to use, but so far that hasn't happened locally, he added.

Stout acknowledged the source of this particular incident is a puzzle, but could involve phosphorus or nitrogen.

"We're good at taking the organic load out by using organic elements that dissolve bacteria ... but we're not so good at taking nitrogen and phosphorus out of the waste stream," he said.

Regarding implications for the river, Stout said, "Long-term, it's something we really need to address. ... It can lead to dead zones from what we know about from nitrogen from the Midwest ending up in the Gulf of Mexico."

Asked if hydraulic fracturing might contribute to the current situation, Stout said, "It could be that it could have something to do with it. They would have to go through and eliminate all potential causes."

Significant water withdrawal, such as that used in the fracking industry, "certainly has potential to be involved," Stout said.

Weirton lawyer Raymond A. Hinerman Sr., who earned a master of laws degree with an emphasis on environmental issues in May at West Virginia University, said runoff of chemical fertilizers containing nitrogen from Midwest farms has entered the Mississippi River, which flows into the Gulf of Mexico.

He said algae has created a dead zone the size of Rhode Island in the gulf.

"The dead zone has grown every year for probably the past 20-25 years," Hinerman said.

The algae bloom, known as "red tide," has a strong unpleasant odor and kills fish in the gulf, he said.