Tag Archives: clean water act

Dead Zone Decision: Court Ruling Forces EPA Action on Mississippi River Pollution

The U.S. District Court in Eastern Louisiana ordered the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Friday to determine within six months whether to set new limits on the pollution that is fueling the dangerous algae growth choking the waters throughout the Mississippi River basin, the Gulf of Mexico and waters across the country.

Image shows a thick mat of green algae with the text "Let's clean this up!"The suit, filed a year and a half ago, challenged EPA’s denial of the Mississippi River Collaborative’s 2008 petition to EPA asking it to establish quantifiable standards and cleanup plans for nitrogen and phosphorus pollution. The suit charged that EPA had unlawfully refused to respond to the question posed to it, which is whether such federal action is necessary to comply with the Clean Water Act.  The court agreed with plaintiffs, holding that the Agency’s refusal to provide a direct answer was unlawful.

The result is a win for Iowans and others living up and down the Mississippi River who support clear, deliberate action to clean up polluted waters.  Here’s how Ann Alexander, lead attorney on the case at the National Resources Defense Council, described the result:

“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.  It’s a short and satisfying answer to a long and decidedly unsatisfying history of dithering inaction by EPA.”

At issue, Alexander explains, is EPA’s responsibility to ensure standards for cleaner water are put in place according to a reasonable timeline.  Alexander explains EPA has been clear about whether the standards are important:

“EPA has been acknowledging for more than a decade that this problem is severe, calling the nationwide damage from algae pollution a “sobering picture and a compelling reason for more urgent and effective action.”  More to the point, EPA has repeatedly gone on record saying that states have not done enough to solve the problem…”

But the federal agency has dithered on whether the standards are legally necessary–a finding that would trigger EPA’s responsibility to work quickly with states to set needed standards.

Perhaps shaken by the fierce industry opposition to its effort to set such limits in Florida, EPA simply refused to answer our question, saying only that setting federal limits if they were necessary would be a lot of time and trouble.

The Court’s decision, issued Friday does not tell the Agency how to address the problem, only to make a decision on the issue. However, 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.

Plaintiffs in the suit included Gulf Restoration Network, Waterkeeper Alliance, Environmental Law and Policy Center, Iowa Environmental Council, Missouri Coalition for the Environment, Prairie Rivers Network, Kentucky Waterways Alliance, Tennessee Clean Water Network, Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, Sierra Club, and NRDC.  Attorneys at the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic, NRDC, and the Environmental Law and Policy Center brought the case.

230+ organizations call on President Obama to protect America’s waterways from livestock waste

The Iowa Environmental Council has joined with more than 230 organizations from 30 states to urge President Obama to protect our nation’s waterways from animal waste produced by industrial livestock operations.

Food animals in the United States generate up to 1 billion tons of waste every year, which often contains nutrients, pathogens, sediment, antibiotics, and metals such as copper or arsenic. That waste contaminates some of our most prized waterways, such as the Great Lakes, Chesapeake Bay, and Mississippi River, as well as streams, estuaries and wells. It also can taint drinking water, kill fish, and close beaches, harming human health and local economies.

Read the letter from human health, environmental, faith-based, farming, community, animal protection, sporting, environmental justice, and student groups after the jump.

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Gulf Dead Zone signifies lack of action by EPA, states

2013-deadzone-measurement-NOAA-map

This week, scientists from the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium completed their annual measurement of the Gulf of Mexico’s Dead Zone, which measured 5,800 square miles, larger than the state of Connecticut.

The Dead Zone is an area of water at the mouth of the Mississippi River which is oxygen-deprived due to excess nitrogen and phosphorus pollution coming primarily from agricultural sources throughout the Basin as far north as the River’s source in Minnesota, and including the state of Iowa.

Image shows a thick mat of green algae with the text "Let's clean this up!"In addition to causing the Dead Zone in the Gulf, nitrogen and phosphorus pollution harms waters throughout the Mississippi River Basin and its tributaries, threatening wildlife and recreation as well as the safety of drinking water.

“Record-high nitrate pollution levels in May through July have forced the Des Moines Water Works to use a nitrate removal system and blend water from other sources just to deliver safe drinking water to over 500,000 Iowans,” said Susan Heathcote, water program director for the Iowa Environmental Council, a member of the Mississippi River Collaborative.

The annual Dead Zone measurement makes the size of the nitrogen and phosphorous pollution problem in the Mississippi River Basin clear, and Iowa’s contribution of nitrogen and phosphorous that feeds this problem is among the largest of any state.

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Meeting clean water goals requires greater commitment to livestock facility inspections

Two fish in an Iowa waterway died during a manure spill.

Manure spills can wreak havoc on aquatic ecosystems. According to the Council’s analysis, illegal manure spills killed more than 1.2 million fish in Iowa in the last ten years.

The Iowa Department of Natural Resources is poised to take on a major EPA-mandated inspection effort to ensure thousands of Iowa livestock facilities are not discharging manure into Iowa’s waters.  But as DNR prepares for this new responsibility, it does so with far fewer staff than necessary, said Ralph Rosenberg, the Iowa Environmental Council’s executive director.


Take action on this issue by telling your state representatives Iowa needs enough livestock inspectors to adequately protect our rivers and lakes.


“Since 2009, Iowa has substantially reduced the number of livestock facility inspectors protecting the state’s rivers and lakes to the point where we are already concerned about inadequate oversight,” Rosenberg said.  “Now, with this much-awaited round of new inspections set to begin, the under-staffing at DNR demands urgent attention.”


spill-map-for-blogThe Council has prepared a new fact sheet on the need for more livestock inspectors, and we offer an interactive map of the impact harmful manure spills have had in your county in the last decade.


The new inspection effort is necessary after the federal Environmental Protection Agency identified numerous shortcomings in Iowa’s Clean Water Act oversight of livestock facilities last summer.  A draft agreement between the EPA and DNR calls on the state agency to complete enhanced inspections of about 8,000 facilities, reaching 20% of the operations—almost 1,600—each year for five years.

Rosenberg said 13 inspectors, a number that restores past staff reductions and more closely matches DNR’s own initial assessment of its need, would better align the agency’s resources with the size of its task.

“This is not an effort where DNR can drop everything, catch up quickly, then move on,” said Rosenberg.  “Completing the new inspections requires a multi-year commitment from the DNR which will put substantial pressure on the department’s resources.  Providing adequate staff is critical so the department can still meet its other responsibilities.”

Rosenberg explained the DNR originally indicated it would seek 13 additional staff members; after the Governor’s budget provided lesser funding, DNR has suggested it will attempt to re-focus its priorities to move forward with fewer staff.  Rosenberg said the Council and its partners are concerned that without the 13 additional staff, DNR could be forced to weaken its efforts in other areas, such as responding to livestock producer questions and citizen complaints, to complete its new task.

“Protecting water quality in Iowa’s rivers and lakes is the responsibility of state government,” Rosenberg said.  “We have to provide our state agencies the resources they need to enforce existing laws.”

According to previous analysis by the Iowa Environmental Council, manure spills killed more than 1.2 million fish in Iowa waters in the last decade, including 24 spills that killed more than 10,000 fish in a single incident.  Findings from that analysis are summarized on the Council’s website, iaenvironment.org.

In draft plan, EPA sets high bar for Iowa’s enforcement of livestock clean water standards

Two fish in an Iowa waterway died during a manure spill.

Manure spills can wreak havoc on aquatic ecosystems. According to the Council’s analysis, illegal manure spills killed more than 1.2 million fish in Iowa in the last ten years.

After issuing a report last summer (.pdf) criticizing shortcomings in Iowa’s handling of clean water rules related to livestock facilities, the federal Environmental Protection Agency has issued a draft work plan (.pdf) for Iowa’s Department of Natural Resources to improve its oversight of large livestock facilities.

If carried out, the work plan would advance significant new protections for clean water in Iowa, which has suffered significant blows from livestock-related manure spills.  Last year, the Council detailed these impacts with a special report on ten years of livestock manure spill data.

spill-map-for-blog

Click the image to view an interactive map of manure spills in your county.

According to that analysis, manure spills killed 1.2 million fish between 2001 and 2011; 42% of spills where manure reached water resulted in no documented monetary penalty issued by the Iowa DNR.

EPA’s proposed work plan includes plans for proactive inspections of Iowa livestock facilities which the Iowa Environmental Council and scores of its individual supporters called for during a public comment period on the issue.

Under the plan, DNR would complete inspections of approximately 8,000 animal feeding operations in the state to assess whether they require permits under the Clean Water Act.

In addition, under the plan, DNR would set new procedures for stronger inspections of livestock facilities to determine whether each facility discharges manure into nearby waterbodies.

Iowa law requires that confinement livestock facilities in Iowa be designed not to discharge pollutants to waterways; enhanced inspections will reveal whether or not that is the case as a facility operates.

To maintain progress on the plan, DNR would complete approximately 1,600 (or 20%) of the facilities each year over five years.  Other rulemaking processes would begin immediately, with the goal of new restrictions being effective early in 2014.

The Iowa Department of Natural Resources’ response to the draft plan is not yet clear.  The agency previously indicated it would pursue additional funding for livestock facility inspectors in the legislature this year.

However, DNR’s proposed staff increases would serve only to restore personnel cuts the agency has made in recent years due to budget reductions.  The Iowa Environmental Council is concerned that additional staff may be needed beyond DNR’s request.

Ultimately, if the Iowa DNR fails to meet the EPA’s expectations for progress, the federal government could take control of the state’s Clean Water Act permit program.

The Council will continue to monitor this dialogue between state and federal officials to ensure Iowa’s rivers and lakes receive the protection from manure spills that Iowans expect.