Vermont Law Meant To Flag Blue-Green Algae Hazards Not Working As Intended

Aug 18, 2016

Vermont enacted a new law this year designed to keep people safe from potential health hazards in the water, but the law isn't working as intended. And some experts say it's ultimately up to Vermonters to protect themselves from lake toxins.

The new law is know as Act 86, and it requires the Vermont Department of Health to start public outreach within one hour of finding out about a bloom of blue-green algae, also known as cyanobacteria.

The law is an effort to keep people from going swimming or otherwise coming into contact with water that could have toxins in it.

The Health Department referred questions about notification to Angela Shambaugh, an aquatic biologist for the state's Department of Environmental Conservation. She said Wednesday that the health department's online tracker map isn't a reliable way to tell if a given area has an active algae bloom.

“The website was never intended to provide the kind of outreach to the degree that the law now requires,” she said.

The volunteers who provide data for the map only check their locations once a week, she said, and algae blooms can form and then dissipate within hours. Plus, not every part of the lake is checked for cyanobacteria by a trained volunteer.

In essence, Shambaugh said that due to the nature of cyanobacteria and the size of the lake, real-time tracking isn't feasible. Still, she said, the Health Department is proactive about keeping Vermonters safe from blue-green algae.

“The Health Department immediately is reaching out to local officials” when they find out about an algae bloom, she said. “They're talking to the town health officer, they're talking with the swim beach managers, and working with them directly to deal with the situation there on the spot, which is where people need to know about it.”

But at the same time, the Health Department maintains this online map that purports to show where in Vermont the blue-green algae is. If that's not the public notification, what is it? And how can Vermonters stay safe from algae?

Mike Winslow is the staff scientist for the Lake Champlain Committee, which works with the health department on the tracker map. He says however Vermonters stay safe from algae, the answer isn’t the government data resource his organization helps to maintain.

“I think it's a mistake to depend on the government to tell you when it's safe to be exposed to algae or not,” Winslow said on Vermont Edition Tuesday. “Just stay away from the green stuff.”

"I think it's a mistake to depend on the government to tell you when it's safe to be exposed to algae or not." - Mike Winslow, Lake Champlain Committee

Winslow and Shambaugh agree that the best defense against algae is to be informed – at the individual level – about how to identify it.

But there's a lot of green stuff in Lake Champlain that isn't cyanobacteria or otherwise harmful, and some people, like James Ehlers, say it is the government's job to protect the public from the bad stuff.

Ehlers is the executive director at Lake Champlain International, and he takes issue with the premise that government shouldn’t be on the hook to protect citizens.

“The only surefire way for people to know that they have malaria is to go to the doctor,” he said. “I mean, people don't carry microscopes to the beach.”

He says there are some things the public just can't be expected to know, and the presence of microscopic toxins in water is one of them.

And he says if the state's policy really is to leave it to the public to identify problems, “[m]aybe we should put that on the tourism and marketing page: ‘Welcome to Vermont, hope you can identify cyanobacteria,’” he said.

With no reliable online information and inconsistent reporting and and signage, those who can't identify the stuff are on their own.