EPA declines petition for action on Dead Zone

Although Republicans and some Democrats portray the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as an over-zealous pollution controller, the agency has repeatedly delayed or declined to issue pollution regulations opposed by major industries. News of the latest example broke late last week, when clean water advocates announced that the EPA will not develop and enforce a plan to clean up the “Dead Zone” in the Gulf of Mexico.

The “Dead Zone” forms every year in the gulf due to “excess nutrients, particularly nitrogen and phosphorus.” They “create large algae blooms which, upon decomposition, suck oxygen out of the water,” so that it no longer supports marine life. The U.S. Geological Survey has found that nine states, including Iowa, contribute more than 70 percent of those excess nutrients. Iowa also contains 42 of the 150 watersheds that feed the Dead Zone.

The Dead Zone varies in size, depending on weather patterns and other factors. This year it was measured at 6,765 square miles, about as large as 12 typical Iowa counties.

Three years ago, a group of non-profit organizations called the Mississippi River Collaborative petitioned the EPA to draw up numeric limits for the pollution that causes the Dead Zone and to draft a plan to clean up the affected area in the Gulf of Mexico. The EPA recently denied that petition, according to the Iowa Environmental Council, which is part of the Mississippi River Collaborative. I enclose the council’s August 4 press release below.

It’s worth noting that during Bill Clinton’s second term, the EPA “called on states to adopt specific limits on nitrogen and phosphorus pollution and threatened to enact its own limits if states had not complied by 2003.” The Dead Zone hasn’t gotten smaller since 2003, yet EPA administrators seem afraid to step up to the plate and address this issue.

The EPA has taken some important steps forward during the Obama administration, such as joining a partnership to create sustainable communities. However, it’s still an uphill battle to get the EPA to move against the interests of powerful industries. The agency was supposed to introduce new standards for ozone under the Clean Air Act in August 2010, but those smog standards have been delayed four times, most recently in late July 2011.

I suspect that the EPA’s reluctance to restrict water pollution causing the Dead Zone is linked to the so-called “Clean Water Cooperative Federalism Act of 2011,” which the U.S. House approved a few weeks ago. That bill would give states more authority over water quality standards and permits under the Clean Water Act. It would prevent the EPA from superseding state rules or withdrawing federal funds from states that have adopted inadequate water quality standards.

The Clean Water Cooperative Federalism Act is unlikely to clear the U.S. Senate, but if it has discouraged the EPA from trying to protect marine life in the Gulf of Mexico, opponents of environmental regulation can rightly say, “Mission accomplished.”

Share any relevant thoughts in this thread.

Iowa Environmental Council press release, August 4:

EPA Denies Petition to Curb River Pollution

Gulf Dead Zone Continues to Grow

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has denied a petition to implement a clean-up plan for an aquatic Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico, despite heavy economic losses to the U.S. fishing industry and continued research that shows the Dead Zone has doubled in size since 1985. Last week, scientists from the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium completed their annual measurement of the Gulf Dead Zone, which measured 6,765 square miles and is larger than the state of Connecticut.

The Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico is an area where there is not enough oxygen in the water to support marine life. It forms every summer, caused by high levels of nitrogen and phosphorus pollution draining from the Mississippi River watershed. The pollution comes from chemical fertilizer escaping farm fields, sewage treatment plant discharges, and polluted runoff from cities. These sources of pollution are from the 31 states that drain to the Mississippi River, but 9 states, including Iowa, are top polluters, contributing 75 percent of the pollution.

In 1998, the EPA called on states to adopt specific limits on nitrogen and phosphorus pollution and threatened to enact its own limits if states had not complied by 2003. Every state along the Mississippi River has ignored that and other deadlines set by EPA, but so far, the federal government has failed to step in as promised, to supply the needed protections. As a result, inland water pollution problems have multiplied while the Dead Zone makes its annual appearance-each time bringing with it damage to the coastal residents and their livelihood.

Yet just last week EPA denied a petition asking them to action. The petition was filed in 2008 by a group of non-profits and legal centers called the Mississippi River Collaborative. It asked for immediate action to set numeric limits on Dead Zone-causing pollution in the Mississippi River and Gulf, as well as create an enforceable clean-up plan for the Dead Zone.

“States cannot effectively stem this problem alone. After years of lackluster and hodge-podge water pollution regulations among a few states, the Dead Zone is still growing. We need the EPA to provide leadership. Multistate concerns such as this are their responsibility.” said Susan Heathcote, water program director for the non-profit Iowa Environmental Council, which is part of the Mississippi River Collaborative.

“The Dead Zone is detrimental to Gulf sea life and the coastal residents’ way of life, and yet EPA continues to rely on the states to do things they have failed to do for well over a decade,” said Matt Rota, Science and Water Policy Director for the Gulf Restoration Network.

Not only does the Dead Zone threaten the $2.8 billion Gulf fishing industry, nitrogen and phosphorus pollution cause environmental problems in states throughout the entire Mississippi River Basin. For example, toxic algae blooms in waters of the states result in fish kills, the death of livestock and pets, and damage to drinking water supplies.

“Efforts now in Congress to cut funds for Farm Bill conservation programs-designed to prevent both cropland erosion and fertilizer run-off pollution-will only exacerbate the pollution in the river and the Dead Zone,” added Heathcote.

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The Iowa Environmental Council is an alliance of diverse organizations and individuals working together in public policy to provide a safe, healthy environment for current and future generations. www.iaenvironment.org

The Gulf Restoration Network (GRN) is a network of environmental, social justice, and citizens’ groups and individuals committed to restoring the Gulf of Mexico to an ecologically and biologically sustainable condition.  www.healthygulf.org

The Mississippi River Collaborative is a partnership of environmental organizations and legal centers from states bordering the Mississippi River as well as regional and national groups working on issues affecting the Mississippi River and its tributaries. The Collaborative harnesses the resources and expertise of its diverse organizations to comprehensively reduce pollution entering the Mississippi River as well as the Gulf of Mexico.  www.msrivercollab.org

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