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.

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