Last Tuesday, while formally announcing he was running for the Republican presidential nomination, Governor John Kasich made it clear that he wants to replicate the policies he has pursued in Ohio on the national level.
The second-term governor told the assembled crowd at THE Ohio State University that he was “going to take what we learned here in the Heartland (with) that band of brothers and sisters that I work with every day and we are going to take the lessons of the Heartland and straighten out Washington, D.C.”
Throughout the predictably rambling, 40-minute plus speech, Gov. Kasich continually spoke of Ohio as a microcosm of the country as a whole, as the perfect bellwether for America. At one point, he stated, “We’ve got an ocean called Lake Erie.”
The Governor’s choice to specifically reference our Great Lake provides a convenient opportunity for us to check out his track record on environmental policies in Ohio. Examining how he has dealt with Lake Erie, by far Ohio’s most precious natural resource, will provide an excellent snapshot of how he may address environmental challenges at the national and international levels. If he had addressed the issues facing the commons of our Great Lake, perhaps he could have been trusted to address global commons like our oceans and atmosphere. But, unfortunately his approach to Lake Erie’s challenges do little to assuage concerns that he would stymie the progress the United States has made on these issues under President Obama.
Two weeks before one of the least suspenseful announcements in the history of language, Kasich tried to tout Ohio’s record in addressing Lake Erie’s woes at the 36th annual Governor’s Fish Day Ohio. Or he would have, had the Governor deemed it worth his time to attend the event. But he was too busy traveling around to drum up support for his as yet nonexistent presidential campaign.
The Governor was also MIA at the June 12-14 meeting of the Great Lakes Governors Leadership Summit, where American and Canadian representatives signed the new Western Basin of Lake Erie Collaborative Agreement. To hear the assembled leaders, the agreement’s call to cut the total phosphorus load entering Lake Erie by 40% by 2025 is a bold step towards curing the Lake of what ails it. Lt. Governor Mary Taylor issued a statement reading, in part, “While we have made tremendous progress in protecting Lake Erie over the past four years, there is more work to do and by working in unison with our Great Lakes neighbors we can make even more progress to improve the water quality in our Great Lakes.”
Except this call to slash phosphorus loading by 40% is hardly new. In February 2014, the International Joint Commission (IJC) issued its long-awaited report, calling for a near-identical reduction in phosphorus loading.
But, in many ways, the IJC report went far further. It called for Ohio and Michigan to list Lake Erie as an impaired waterway under the Clean Water Act, a decision which would enable the U.S. EPA to guide those two states, plus Indiana, to set maximum phosphorus load targets for the Lake. Governor Kasich has refused to take this step.
In addition, the IJC noted that voluntary measures are far from enough and are “clearly failing.” Yet the Governor’s agreement included no information on how states will actually implement this plan. It simply calls on parties to develop some sort of plan by 2018, the last year of Kasich’s term. But, if you consider the Governor’s budget proposal for FY2016-2017, you may be less optimistic that we’ll get a real plan by that point. In his proposed budget, the Governor zeroed out funding for the Healthy Lake Erie Program, which is a vital source of funding for addressing Lake Erie’s algae problem. Thankfully, the legislature deemed this program worthy of funding, and restored the $1 million per year expenditure. But, despite all his public statements to the contrary, the Governor’s budget demonstrates his level of support for protecting the Lake – or lack thereof.
Now, Ohio did pass legislation this spring, Senate Bill 1, which instituted new regulations to limit phosphorus runoff. The bill prohibits farmers from spreading fertilizer on frozen and waterlogged soils, restricts the dumping of dredged sediment in Lake Erie, and requires wastewater treatment plants to monitor phosphorus concentrations.
While SB 1 represented an important first step, neither the legislature nor the Governor appears willing to go far enough to actually tackle the problem. The bill provides a two-year exemption from the fertilizer restrictions for smaller farms. More importantly, the legislature and Governor refused to make it an emergency measure. Had they done so, the restrictions would have gone into place immediately, just in time for the onset of the all-important spring rainy season. Instead, they shuffled SB 1 through as an ordinary bill, ensuring that its provisions did not take effect until July 2, 90 days after the Governor signed it. Compare this decision to recent abortion restrictions, including those included in the new state budget bill, which would or did take immediate effect. Apparently, protecting the unborn does not apply to toxic algae, which is particularly harmful to pregnant women and young children.
You may wonder why I’m so concerned about one small piece of a 17-page bill. Well, at least as far as this year is concerned, this one step likely exacerbated the scale of this summer’s algae bloom. On July 9, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) issued its forecast for the 2015 harmful algal bloom (HAB) in Lake Erie. The forecast projects that the HAB will be an 8.7 on a scale of 1-10, with a range from 8.1 to an astounding 9.2. This would make 2015 the second largest HAB on record, rivaling just 2011’s historic bloom – which scored a perfect 10 – that stretched all the way to Cleveland.
Earlier this year, NOAA initially projected that we would only see a moderate bloom, scoring just a 6. But record rainfall throughout Northern Ohio has supercharged the amount of phosphorus entering the Maumee River and, ultimately, Lake Erie. Parts of the Maumee Basin saw more than 15-18 inches of rain in June, shattering precipitation records. Clearly, the failure to control fertilizer use during these soggy spring months has put the lake in a precarious situation.
Here in Cleveland, we registered more than 8.5 inches of rain last month, the third most on record. Now, it might be one thing if this was a one-off event, but it isn’t. Instead, the past three Junes are each among the ten rainiest Junes in Cleveland history. Climate change is leading to more precipitation throughout the Midwest, and when it comes, it comes harder than ever before. The heaviest precipitation events have increased by 37% since the 1950s, and experts project they will become 4-5 times more common by the end of the century.
Climate change will become the major force driving future HABs in Lake Erie, unless we take action to address it. Given this fact, you might hope that Governor Kasich would act accordingly. You’d be wrong. Ohio was among 12 states that sued the EPA to stop its proposed Clean Power Plan, a vital regulation that would cut carbon emissions from power plants throughout the country. The administration appears hell bent on derailing the most important step this country has ever taken to address climate change, despite the fact that multiple studies show Ohio can meet its carbon reduction benchmarks and save money in the process.
Granted, the state would have a much easier time meeting its carbon obligations if the Governor had not signed Senate Bill 310 last June, which froze Ohio’s clean energy standards for two years. The freeze, in place through next year, has derailed the state’s clean energy industry and allowed FirstEnergy to cancel most of its energy efficiency rebate programs throughout the state. The bill also makes it clear that the legislature will water down these standards once the freeze ends. This administration has also sued the EPA to stop its vital Clean Water Rule, which would reestablish federal protection over a wide array of surface waters, including those that carry water into Lake Erie. As Mother Jones recently noted, Governor Kasich may acknowledge that the climate is changing, he just doesn’t want to do anything about it.
Governor Kasich may believe that his track record in Ohio will make him a great President. But, based on how he has treated our “ocean,” Lake Erie, the actual oceans – not to mention the atmosphere – are screwed if he makes it to the White House. As columnist Gary Wilson quipped, under Kasich, “Ohio treats the lake like the poor step-child who is given a Christmas present because it’s obligatory – not out of genuine caring.”