Changes to Ohio bill targeting Lake Erie algae would allow certain farmers a limited exemption

Some farmers could avoid penalties for a year or two if they violate a proposed ban on spreading manure under changes made Tuesday to a bill designed to reduce the toxic algae in Lake Erie.

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The revision was among several being considered by the Ohio House's agriculture committee, which could vote on the legislation Tuesday afternoon.

Leaders hope to send the bill to Gov. John Kasich this week before the General Assembly recesses for spring break.

The measure would be the first passed in an effort to slow the spread of the algae since last August, when a toxin contaminated the drinking water for more than 400,000 people in northeastern Ohio and southeastern Michigan.

Field runoff from manure and chemical fertilizers is among the main contributors to algae blooms, which also have been linked to oxygen-depleted dead zones in the lake where fish can't survive.

Generally, the bill would prohibit farmers from spreading livestock manure on frozen fields or when heavy rain is in the immediate forecast — a practice that environmental groups and farm organizations agree shouldn't be done.

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A change made by the House's agriculture committee would allow for a one- or two-year exemption for certain livestock farmers who are trying to comply with the new rules. The panel's chairman said it would give small- and medium-livestock farming operations more time to deal with the costs associated with storing manure when their fields are covered with snow and rain.

Rep. Brian Hill, chairman of the House Agriculture and Rural Development Committee, said he wasn't sure how many farmers would qualify for an exemption. About 2,500 livestock farmers operate in the northern Ohio areas where the ban will be in effect, he said.

"To be honest, this next couple of years, there's going to be a lot of growing pains," said Hill, a Zanesville Republican. He said lawmakers did not want to scare farmers to the point where they didn't want to remain in business. "Animal agriculture is vital to Ohio."

Hill said lawmakers have given the administration "the teeth they need to enforce the law" should the farmer violate the manure rules.

Legislators have been hung up on how the ban would be enforced and whether farmers should be punished for violations.

The proposal would require the agriculture and natural resource committees of the General Assembly to review the manure and fertilizer ban in at least three years. The proposal also would require water treatment plants to monitor phosphorous levels.

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Associated Press writer John Seewer in Toledo contributed to this report.