By Peter H. MILLIKEN
Although Mill Creek MetroParks lakes Newport, Cohasset and Glacier are closed to water activities due to high E. coli bacteria levels, activities such as driving, bicycling or hiking on the roads around the lakes don’t pose a health risk, Mahoning County’s health commissioner said Friday.
When asked if these land-based activities present any illness threat, Patricia Sweeney replied: “Absolutely none.”
She said breathing lakefront air is not a health hazard.
“It’s a wonderful location to be physically active,” she said of the park. “Just stay out of the water.”
MetroParks officials closed the lakes indefinitely July 10, immediately after receiving water-sample test results from the county board of health’s lab showing elevated E. coli levels in Lake Newport.
The board of health tested the water last week after a Lake Newport fish kill the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency said was caused primarily by discharges from the city’s combined storm and sanitary sewer overflows due to heavy rains in late June.
“Everything is going on as scheduled, except for water activities,” Samantha Villella, MetroParks community engagement director, said of park-sponsored programs.
“Come out and enjoy the MetroParks,” she urged, adding that water-based activities constitute “a small portion of what we provide.”
Most of the dead fish have been removed from Lake Newport, and their removal continues in park lakes and in Mill Creek, she said.
The park’s foot trails, paved hike and bike trails, roads, golf course, athletic facilities, playgrounds, picnic areas, rental cabins and Fellows Riverside Gardens remain open as usual, Villella said.
If the park’s boat-rental facilities at lakes Newport and Glacier don’t reopen at all this year, the park likely will lose about $15,700 in rental revenue, she said.
Added to that would be $1,200 to $1,500 in lost fees for naturalist-escorted kayak trips, she said.
The park canceled a free evening kayak trip on Lake Newport on July 10 and a revenue-generating trip July 11, both on Lake Newport.
Two more naturalist-escorted kayak trips had been scheduled for this month, five in August, two each in September and October and possibly one in November.
In an interview late Friday, Aaron Young, Mill Creek MetroParks executive director, explained his statement that the park lakes likely will remain closed all summer.
He said future water-quality testing will give park officials “baseline data” concerning normal conditions in the park lakes, and that he expects normal contaminant levels will be higher than what’s acceptable.
“Even in between rain events, the [E. coli] levels are elevated,” based on test results to date, he said.
“We expect the normal numbers to not be good, and, if the normal numbers are not good, the lakes won’t be open,” Young said.
The rain event that led to the fish kill “identified the problem and brought it to the forefront,” Young said, adding that when he became park executive director six months ago, he had no knowledge that the combined sewer overflows existed.
When E. coli counts are high, the lakes need to be closed to boating because of the risk of splashing contaminated water into one’s eyes or mouth while paddling or of falling into the water, he explained.
“The closing of the lakes brings the issue of watershed quality to the forefront,” Young said, referring to the entire Mill Creek watershed, including the area upstream from Lake Newport.
“You’re not going to see improvements to the watershed quality until everybody starts operating differently,” Young said, referring to the need to limit runoff of sediment and lawn and farm fertilizers and make sure septic systems operate properly.
Sweeney said she believes remarks she made to Young concerning large-scale media coverage of the lake closures may have been taken out of context.
Prior to a Thursday news conference, members of the media heard the health commissioner mention to Young that there are other public-health issues, such as infant mortality rates – seemingly expressing confusion as to why issues like that don’t prompt the kind of media response that the water-quality issue has.
“I really am not being critical of the news media at all. They have been very supportive of getting the information out” about the lake closures, she said Friday.
“We have such dramatic issues with infant mortality and chronic disease, like diabetes, and heroin abuse,” Sweeney said. “You like to have that level of interest around all of the issues that are affecting our quality of life every day,” she said, acknowledging that the media have been covering the infant mortality and heroin issues.
Sweeney said her department will collect and test Lake Newport water samples at two-week intervals.
U.S. Sen. Rob Portman, in the area Friday with stops in Vienna and Boardman, was asked about elimination of the sewage-overflow problems in Mill Creek MetroParks.
“It’s very costly; we’re running into this around the state, including here in Youngstown,” said Portman, a Cincinnati-area Republican. “We’re looking for federal grants to help. It typically ends up being a combination of state help, local and federal [money]. We’re hoping we can be helpful [with] federal grants.”
Addressing these problems is “important,” Portman said, “because of the health and safety of our lakes and ponds.”
Portman said he’s “worked a lot on this with Lake Erie, and with other lakes and reservoirs around Ohio as it relates to toxic algal blooms.”
Contributor: David Skolnick, staff writer