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Plan to shut down Ohio golf course hinges on fishy water report

By   /   January 30, 2013  /   No Comments

By Jon Cassidy | Watchdog.org

COLUMBUS, Ohio – What would you call the opposite of a whitewash, where the fact to be covered up isn’t some foul stain but the absence of one?

AURORA GOLF COURSE: One sort of person sees Hole 5 at Aurora Golf Course and thinks he better go at the green with a lofted club. Another trembles with outrage at the cart bridges and what danger may lurk below.
Courtesy of George Heisler

Whatever the term, that’s what I’d call a new report released this month by the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency. It’s a water quality report meant to lend some science to a $4.7 million plan to buy a golf course, close it down and let the grass grow, all in the name of cleaner water.

If you’re going to spend that much money on water cleanup, you should probably get a report showing it’s dirty in the first place. And there’s our first problem.

The Ohio EPA and the city of Aurora signed off on the $4.7 million plan to buy the Aurora Golf Club on Dec. 24. The corresponding water quality report is dated Dec. 31, and it wasn’t made public until this month.

It’s a bit like sentencing a man to hang a week before the jury finds him guilty. Wasn’t anyone worried the report would find no trace of pollution and embarrass them all?

So I picked up a copy and flipped to the page listing all the chemicals they found. Only it wasn’t there. The report was just a bunch of stuff about ecosystem health. That seemed strange for a “Biological and Water Quality Study” – you’d think there’d be something about water quality.

I checked every other water quality report the Ohio EPA published in 2012, and every last one had data on findings of metals, PCBs, volatile organic compounds and the like. We’re talking page after page of charts on the presence or absence of substances like dimethyl phthalate, hexachlorocyclopentadiene and nitrosodiphenylamine.

If you want support for a water project, just tell people it’ll get nitrosodiphenylamine out of their water – you don’t even have to tell ‘em what it is.

But the Aurora study is missing this entire section.

Maybe it’s because the water is already clean. Former mayor Lynn McGill, a big supporter of the project, has admitted the water there is “pristine.” When the EPA did samples 10 years ago, it didn’t find anything more than trace elements of fertilizer.

But if the water’s already clean, you lose the whole rationale for the city buying the course with EPA money and closing it down.

I noticed something else in those other water quality studies: they all used three assessments of ecological health, but the Aurora study only used one of them.

This matters, because when a stream meets a benchmark score for all three tests (known as the IBI, ICI, and MIwb), it’s said to have achieved “attainment” status. That’s bureaucrat-speak for good, and it’s one big reason the Aurora City Council is citing in support of the project.

Now, I won’t bore you with what the acronyms stand for, but know that the Ohio EPA actually invented the MIwb, which is now used by lots of other agencies, so it’s not like the Ohio EPA up and decided the test was worthless. You may not see the point of adding up total fish mass in a body of water and then doing some algebra with the figure, but trust that the Ohio EPA does.

Here’s where it gets weirder, if things can get weirder than fish mass algebra: the EPA research team did the work it needed to get an MIwb number. That is, they went out to three locations on the Chagrin River and electro-fished them. That’s not just a scan – it involves zapping a body of water to stun the fish, gathering them into a net, tallying them and then releasing them.

The researchers catalogued 1,719 fish they found at three locations and listed them in their report. But nobody did the MIwb math.

It was the same with the ICI, which measures bugs instead of fish. Researchers tallied 63 different kinds of insects but didn’t turn that into a score.

The Aurora report just uses the third measurement, called the IBI, and even here, the Aurora Golf Course scored better than a site a mile-and-a-half upstream where millions of dollars have been spent on habitat restoration.

Basically, this looks like a whitewash, or whatever it is we agreed to call the opposite of a whitewash.

Even this version of the report, slanted as it may be, doesn’t make an argument that the project would have any benefits to the water supply downstream. Just a mile-and-a-half downstream, the habitat is already officially “excellent.”

For your $4.7 million, you’ll get more shade on the riverbanks at the soon-to-be-former golf course and more rocks in the riverbed, which might get you some more variety in insects and fish at the one location.

I asked the EPA if there was some explanation for all the missing data. Spokesman Mike Settles emailed to say that “the decision has been appealed to the Environmental Review Appeals Commission (ERAC). Therefore, the Agency is unable to comment further.”

I wasn’t expecting much more since earlier this month, Ohio Watchdog reported that the deal’s financing may be illegal. The $4.7 million is coming from an EPA fund, but the EPA is treating it as though it were some sort of advance on future interest payments on a separate loan made for another project to another party.

The byzantine arrangement is an attempt to get around federal and state restrictions on the money, which is supposed to be used for loans, not grants. Even if you accept the EPA’s strange accounting, state law says that “all interest earned on moneys in the fund, and all payments of principal and interest for loans made from the fund shall be dedicated in perpetuity,” so that they can be “used and reused” exclusively for the fund’s purpose.

Obviously, if you’re giving an interest payment away, you can’t reuse that money. Not even for fish mass algebra.

Contact Jon Cassidy at jon@ohiowatchdog.org.

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Jon Cassidy