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Black Lake business owners say algae bloom health risk warnings are overblown

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Despite a state Department of Environmental Conservation warning of a toxic algae bloom on Black Lake, business owners along the 20-mile-long body of water say claims about health risks from swimming and fishing are overstated.

Cara A. Bliss, owner of Camp Wildwood on Black Lake and president of the Black Lake Chamber of Commerce, said she wants visitors to be safe, but doesn’t want the risks to be overblown.

“Whenever you emphasize some kind of negative influence in a tourism area, you can negatively impact the revenue,” she said.

The warning issued Tuesday by DEC is a result of blue-green algae blooms concentrated near Tavern and Conger islands. The algae produce toxic microcystis, a chemical with potentially deadly consequences for animals and people who ingest it. Open-water tests farther north taken the week of July 21 also identified elevated toxin levels.

DEC’s warning said contact with the algae bloom can produce nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, skin or throat irritation, allergic reactions or breathing difficulties.

Richard C. Henderson, Black Lake Association president, said in an email message that while blooms are natural occurrences on the lake, this year’s blue-green algae bloom contains high levels of microcystins.

“The level in two water samples taken from bloom areas of Black Lake was 20 times higher than the recreational contact suggested limit,” Mr. Henderson wrote.

The Black Lake Association, in partnership with the New York Citizens Statewide Lake Assessment Program, alerted DEC to the algae bloom and toxin level.

Mr. Henderson, DEC and the St. Lawrence County Public Health Department are warning residents and visitors to steer clear of the algae.

“Don’t go swimming. Don’t play fetch with your dog in it,” county Public Health Director Susan J. Hathaway said.

Clarkson University biology professor Michael R. Twiss, director of the Great Rivers Center, said it’s unlikely a person would drink enough of the harmful algae while swimming to become seriously ill or die. As far as pets are concerned, however, Mr. Twiss said there have been reports in New York of dogs that lick themselves after swimming in the water and die as a result of ingesting the toxin.

But members of the Black Lake business community, one that thrives on tourism, are not convinced.

“Black Lake puts $10 million into the St. Lawrence County economy,” Morristown Town Council member Gary B. Turner said.

This year’s algae bloom, Mr. Turner said, has the potential to stop that revenue in its tracks — a possibility that hangs over the heads of a community dependent on the lake.

“The sky is not falling,” Ms. Bliss said. She criticized recent reports for not developing an accurate picture of the problem.

“It’s not in wide-open water. It’s not in deep water; it’s in shallow and protected coves,” she said.

She said, however, that she was unaware of where testing had been done.

David W. Schaefer, owner of Schaefer’s Cedar Grove Camps on the western shore of the lake, said he believes the problem has “just been blown way out of proportion.”

“Rich Henderson is making claims that are completely absurd,” he said. “There’s an algae bloom on this lake every year.”

Mr. Schaefer said the beach at his campground was cleared Thursday by the county Public Health Department to stay open.

Ms. Bliss said she has been advising her customers to take proper precautions against the bloom. She said she will not let her dog swim in the lake, but she believes the lake is still mostly safe.

“I haven’t heard of any reports of people getting sick,” she said.

DEC also has warned that fish caught in bloom areas should not be eaten because they may contain toxins. Mr. Twiss said that the toxins could build in the fish population well after the bloom dissipates, and that fish throughout the whole lake may be hazardous by fall.

“Personally, I wouldn’t eat fish from anywhere in the lake because I could not be sure that the fish didn’t swim out of a bloom area to a non-bloom area,” Mr. Henderson said.

Ms. Bliss, whose camp on the eastern shore of the lake sees roughly 750 visitors every summer, is upset by the claim.

“Black Lake is known for its fishing,” she said. “People’s livelihoods are on the line.”

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