Auburn, Cayuga County officials frustrated with state over algae

City of Auburn and Cayuga County staff and elected officials are frustrated with the state on a variety of issues surrounding harmful algal blooms.

Thursday night during the Auburn City Council meeting, Director of Municipal Utilities Seth Jensen and Cayuga County Health Department Director of Environmental Health Eileen O’Connor gave an overview of how the city and county are treating and reporting HABs. Jensen said there has been a lower frequency of blooms this year and the city’s powder-activated carbon system, which removes microcystins from drinking water, has been running well. No toxins have been reported in the city’s finished drinking water.

Councilors expressed their frustration with new reporting procedures implemented by the state. According to O’Connor, in the past, the city and town of Owasco would send their water samples to a state-run lab to test for microcystins and the state would alert the municipalities if any toxins above 0.15 parts per billion were detected. According to state standards, water is unsafe to drink if microcystins measure 0.3 parts per billion or above.

Last year, the state tried to change its reporting procedures to alert municipalities only if microcystins in their water tested 0.3 parts per billion or above because readings below 0.3 parts per billion are less reliable. However, after the city expressed concern with this change, the lab decided to continue reporting readings below 0.3 parts per billion with a disclaimer explaining that there is a certain margin of error associated with lower readings.

Now, since harmful algal blooms have impacted nearly 100 water bodies in New York, the state has begun outsourcing testing for HABs to private labs that are state certified and those labs are not allowed to disclose any readings below 0.3 parts per billion or they could risk losing their state certification, O’Connor said.

Councilor Terry Cuddy said there are other testing methods used by other states that are able to detect lower levels of microcystins with greater levels of confidence. He questioned why New York is not using one of those methods because it would be helpful for staff to have those numbers so they could look for trends during algal bloom season.

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