Court Mandates EPA Make Final Rule On Mississippi Nutrients
By Sara Jerome
New regulations may be coming down the pike to keep nutrients out of the Mississippi River.
That's because the courts are forcing the EPA to make a final decision on whether such rules are necessary under the Clean Water Act. A U.S. District Court has granted the EPA six months to craft its response, The Times Picayune reported.
Green activists are welcoming the development. "A number of environmental groups active along the Mississippi and its tributaries…asked EPA in 2008 to issue new rules that would require reductions in phosphorus and nitrogen entering the river from Midwest farms and other sources," the newspaper said.
Here's how the Natural Resources Defense Council saw the news: "In the simplest terms, the court ordered EPA to remove its head from the sand and make a decision whether to be part of the solution or part of the problem," a blogger said.
Opponents, largely based in industry, see the rules as a cumbersome compliance cost. A similar fight in Florida prompted major opposition when the EPA made an intervention there, according to analysts. It resulted in "the latest and most widely distributed entreaty yet from agriculture, fertilizer, chemical, homebuilder and manufacturing interests — 67 groups altogether — that have been urging members of Congress to stop EPA from implementing and enforcing the new water pollution rules," The New York Times reported.
Nutrients in the Mississippi have effects in all corners of the country. "Nitrogen and phosphorus from sewage plants, urban stormwater systems and agricultural operations fuel the growth of algae in waterways around the country. Algae, in turn, chokes out other aquatic life and can rob water of the oxygen that fish and shellfish need to survive," The Lane Report said.
One of the most severe effects is the rise of so-called "dead zones" in the Gulf of Mexico. In these zones, "algal growth has driven levels of oxygen at the sea floor so low that virtually nothing can live there. Similar issues are driving the dramatic collapse of Lake Erie and threatening other portions of the Great Lakes."
The fate of this proceeding seems tilted toward regulation, some analysts said. The court did not tell the agency how to address the problem, but "the EPA has repeatedly acknowledged the severity of the problem and stated that federal intervention is appropriate because states are not doing enough to solve it," the report said.
Based on the court’s determination, the EPA now has 180 days to begin a true course of action to resolve the problem — specifically, to determine the “necessity” of more stringent regulations. The result could be the establishment of a total maximum daily load (TMDL) for phosphorus and nitrogen in the Mississippi River and the northern Gulf of Mexico. TMDLs have typically focused on wastewater treatment plants (WWTPs) by restricting pollutant discharge limits, but nonpoint sources such as farms are much greater contributors to nutrient loading. The potential fallout for both WWTPs and local industry will hinge on the EPA’s response to the court mandate.
For comprehensive coverage of nutrient issues, check out Water Online's previous reporting here.
Image credit: "Mississippi River," © 2010 cm195902, used under an Attribution-2.0 Generic license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/