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Great Lakes Article:

Farms polluting Lake Huron
The Toronto Star
11//06/03

HURON COUNTY - An association of Huron County cottagers wants Queen's Park to get tough with farmers who are being blamed for polluting Lake Huron beaches.

A three-year, $18,000 study and recent DNA analysis concluded that farms and not septic tanks or sewage treatment plants are the major source of pollution and closures at beaches in Huron County.

The claim is being challenged by the Huron Federation of Agriculture.

Mike McElhone of the Ashfield-Colborne Lakefront Association, which serves the users of 600 cottages, said the study results prove the need for tougher laws to control farm pollution.

As it stands, the province's new Nutrient Management Act is "unbelievably weak, among the weakest in North America," McElhone said in an interview.

The problem rests squarely on the province's shoulders, he said, because the act stripped municipal councils of any authority to address the problem.

The act, which is being phased in, set rules for the disposal of manure and other animal waste on farms.

The cottagers association is trying to arrange meetings with provincial ministers of the environment, agriculture, natural resources and municipal affairs to persuade them of the need to crack down on farm pollution.

For more than 10 years, bad water quality has forced periodic closures of Lake Huron beaches in Huron County.

The results of DNA testing this year of bacteria in water samples proved what cottagers suspected for years, McElhone said. The testing only became available in the last year, and the group had to look to a Florida firm to have the tests done.

McElhone said 50 per cent of water samples taken at beaches by the Huron County Health Unit during the 1990s failed to meet provincial water-quality standards. Samples taken over the last three years were as much as 83 times higher than provincial standards for E. coli.

"The results have been absolutely frightening considering the large numbers of children and adults who use the shoreline for recreation," McElhone said.

But until recently, there was no way of knowing who was at fault.

"The cottagers blamed the farmers and the farmers blamed the cottagers and one councillor said it was the sea gulls' fault," McElhone said.

The testing was able to determine whether the bacteria came from humans or animals.

The association paid for the study with the help of grants from Ashfield-Colborne-Wawanosh Township.

The Maitland Valley Conservation Authority chose the sites and the township provided volunteers to help take up to 200 samples year.

"While it is possible that the E. coli originates from birds or wild animals, the possibility is extremely remote," McElhone said.

Neil Vincent, president of the Huron Federation of Agriculture, said that he had not seen the cottagers' study, but suggested it is one of several done with conflicting conclusions.

"One study will say one thing and one will say another.

"I'd be an idiot to say there wasn't animal fecal matter, but is it from farm animals or wild animals?

"The corridor along the Maitland River is heavily inhabited by wild animals, deer, coons wild turkeys and hundreds of thousands of Canada geese.

"I'm not saying none of it is getting off the farm, but we do know there is a certain amount getting in from septic systems."

Vincent said pointing fingers won't solve the problem.

"We all know we should be doing things better."

McElhone said malfunctioning septic tanks could also be contributing to the problem. The association has recommended a mandatory pump-out and inspection program to the township and county councils.

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