Tag Archives: EPA

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.

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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Facing clean water risk from harmful manure spills, Iowa should not retreat from oversight duty

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.

News broke recently that Governor Branstad has weighed in on a continuing dialogue between the Environmental Protection Agency and the Iowa Department of Natural Resources about whether Iowa is adequately protecting its rivers and lakes from harmful manure spills.

In documents released by the Sierra Club’s Iowa Chapter, Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, and the Environmental Integrity Project, the governor expressed reluctance over a draft EPA plan calling for Iowa to verify that livestock operations are not putting local waters at risk.

The Iowa Environmental Council believes that given the harmful effects manure spills have had on Iowa waters, additional protections and oversight are needed.

Last year, the Council analyzed public records about manure spills over the last decade and found spills from livestock operations remain a major threat to water quality and aquatic life.  We identified 262 manure spills that reached Iowa waterways between 2001 and 2011, 42% of which did not result in a documented monetary penalty assessed by DNR.  Fish kills were documented in approximately one-third of spill cases, and DNR estimates revealed at least 1.2 million fish died as a result of these manure spills.

Iowans expect state government to fulfill its responsibilities for providing water that is safe for drinking, recreation, and aquatic life.  Our analysis of manure spills, EPA’s own report on DNR’s practices, and concerns expressed by many Iowans in comments to state government or in the media demonstrate that today, that responsibility is not being met.

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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.

Rosenberg: Questions linger about effectiveness of new state water plan

Image shows a thick mat of green algae with the text "Let's clean this up!"Thursday morning, Karl Brooks, Region 7 Administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, released his agency’s comments (.pdf) on Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy, a new attempt to take on the state’s widespread nitrogen and phosphorous pollution problem.  While Administrator Brooks called the strategy “a great start,” he went on to recommend numerous changes to Iowa’s plan.

After reviewing EPA’s comments, Iowa Environmental Council executive director Ralph Rosenberg made the following statement:

Ralph Rosenberg

Ralph Rosenberg is the executive director of the Iowa Environmental Council.

“The Iowa Environmental Council has consistently called on state government leaders to set clearer goals for establishing accountability and measuring success for cleaner water not only for the Gulf of Mexico but also in Iowa’s rivers and lakes.  Iowa’s strategy fails to set measurable goals and compounds this problem by omitting a concrete implementation plan.    Without a better plan, Iowans will lack confidence meaningful action will occur.

“Now, the EPA, too, has pointed out numerous areas where Iowa should state more clearly what it hopes to accomplish, and by when.  The agency also restated its belief that clean water standards, or numeric criteria, ‘are important tools for effective water quality management of nutrient pollution,’ an approach Iowa’s strategy seeks to avoid or discredit.

“State officials have provided Iowans until January 18 to comment on the strategy, which was developed mostly behind closed doors over two years.  After that date, I am hopeful the state will announce an open, participatory public process to resolve serious lingering concerns over whether Iowa’s strategy is designed to deliver clean water.”

Among the additions and clarifications the EPA requested be included in Iowa’s plan are:

  • More detail about how conservation systems “could be targeted for use on the most vulnerable lands,”
  • More information on the benefits of agricultural best management practices, rather than just the costs,
  • A schedule for implementing “accountability and verification measures,”
  • More detail about “explicitly… how progress will be monitored/measured,” and
  • “specific action steps, milestones and timelines for implementation of actions included in the strategy.”

Rosenberg also outlined the Iowa Environmental Council’s position on the Nutrient Strategy in a recent opinion piece in the Des Moines Sunday Register, and the Council maintains a website with resources related to the strategy.