Environmental groups sue EPA over Dead Zone pollution

Today, the Iowa Environmental Council joined with other environmental groups in a pair of legal actions to compel the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to address the nitrogen and phosphorous pollution degrading water quality in Iowa, the Mississippi River Basin, and the Gulf of Mexico, where this pollution causes the Dead Zone, an area larger than the state of Connecticut that is devoid of marine life.

This pollution comes from 31 states in the Mississippi River Basin, but according to the US Geological Survey, nine states, including Iowa, are top polluters, contributing more than 75 percent of the pollution reaching the Gulf.

“This is a massive, multi-state problem, but the EPA has not accepted its responsibility for leadership on this issue, and state responses–including in Iowa–have languished as a result,” said Marian Riggs Gelb, executive director of the Iowa Environmental Council. “In addition to the Gulf Dead Zone, excessive amounts of nitrogen and phosphorous from farm runoff and sewage treatment plants wreak havoc here in Iowa as well, threatening drinking water, recreation in our lakes and rivers, and aquatic life here and downstream.”

In response, a coalition of environmental groups including the Iowa Environmental Council are challenging EPA’s denial of a 2008 petition asking EPA to establish quantifiable limits and cleanup plans for nitrogen and phosphorous pollution.  Separately, the Council and other groups are seeking to compel EPA to finally respond to an even older petition – a 2007 request that EPA modernize its decades-old pollution standards for sewage treatment plants and include nitrogen and phosphorous removal in those standards.

In 1998, the EPA called on states to adopt specific limits on nitrogen and phosphorous pollution and threatened to enact its own limits if states had not complied by 2003. Every state along the Mississippi River, including Iowa, missed that deadline.  Since that time, EPA has softened its expectations, telling states in a 2011 memo that if a state is trying to reduce its contributions to the pollution problem, the state’s plan for implementing necessary standards can be “flexible.”

“EPA isn’t exercising its authority to ensure states put standards in place, and meanwhile, Iowa has backed away from its own efforts to do so.  Even though EPA has repeatedly said how important these pollution limits are, the agency’s current strategy is failing to meet the goals of the Clean Water Act,” said Susan Heathcote, the Iowa Environmental Council’s water program director.

Operating under EPA’s framework, Iowa has stopped its efforts to implement specific pollution standards.  Last year, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources cancelled a nearly-finished rulemaking effort to set standards limiting pollution in lakes just as the new limits neared final approval.  Then, early this year, DNR set aside its schedule for developing nutrient standards for rivers and streams over the next three years.

Instead, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship (IDALS) are working with stakeholders to develop a state nutrient reduction strategy focused on nitrogen and phosphorous.  The new strategy will incorporate efforts to reduce nutrient pollution from cities, industries, and Iowa farms.

Heathcote said that although her organization supports Iowa’s work to reduce nitrogen and phosphorous pollution, Iowa’s reduction efforts must also include the clearly identified pollution limits that the Council and its Mississippi River Collaborative partners called for in their petition to EPA.

This is particularly important to secure reductions from unregulated agricultural sources. “In talking with farmers about this issue, we’ve heard that they want to know how nutrient pollution harms waterways, the extent to which their farm contributes to the problem, and what steps they need to take to do their part to solve the problem,” Heathcote said.

“If farmers agree to make voluntary land management changes under the nutrient reduction strategy, they need to know if their actions will be successful or not.  Without these science-based pollution standards in place, we have no good basis on which to answer that question,” she said.

Heathcote explained that without necessary standards, Iowa’s nutrient strategy may try to organize efforts around pollution reductions that are too small to meet the state’s water quality needs.

“We have to be honest with ourselves right from the start about the level of participation necessary from all Iowans to solve these problems, and that’s what these standards will help us accomplish,” she said.

Meanwhile, the Dead Zone in the Gulf returns each summer, and has doubled in size since 1985.  Iowa waters also suffer, as algae blooms and toxic cyanobacteria cover lakes, rivers and streams in green slime and threaten the health of people and animals who drink or swim in the water.

“It’s not acceptable for us to have no real plan for setting these nutrient standards in Iowa, but unfortunately, I see no reason why this pattern will change unless the courts direct EPA to reconsider its approach.” Gelb said.

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