A greener Congress

11/25/2006, St. Louis Post-Dispatch

By Adam Sichko


WASHINGTON — Deadly chemical runoff and suffocating loads of sediment
plague the Mississippi River, and the governors of Missouri, Illinois and
three other states in the river basin want an accounting of the problem.

A bill in Congress would do just that, and now that Democrats have taken
control, it could speed to passage.

"The Congress is definitely a deeper shade of green after these elections,"
said Melinda Pierce, a Sierra Club lobbyist.

The Mississippi River bill has a modest price tag and focuses on a regional
problem. It’s one type of narrower environmental initiative that Democrats
will probably seek to guide through when they take control of Congress in
January 4. But Democratic leaders are setting their sights higher as weel,
promising major policy shifts including:

— Repealing tax subsidies for big oil companies and investing those dollars
in renewable energy technology;

— Curbing greenhouse gases and other emissions that contribute to global

— Speeding the cleanup of toxic waste dumps.

But ambitious efforts may get only so far. Pierce said it wouldn’t be easy
for major pieces of environmental legislation to make it across the finish

She added: "The more general tenor is: We’re not going to be playing
defense anymore and then a slow shift toward knocking off some of these
good, forward-thinking energy proposals."

New committee heads

With Democrats in power, the way Congress approaches environmental and
energy policies could flip 180 degrees, congressional observers said.

For example, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., who will chair the Senate
Committee on Environment & Public Works, has promised major policy change
to curb emissions that spur global warming. She takes the place of Sen.
James Inhofe, R-Okla., who once called global warming "the greatest hoax
perpetrated on the American people."

And voters ousted Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Calif., chairman of the House
Resources Committee. He was virulently opposed by major environmental
groups, including the Sierra Club and the League of Conservation Voters,
for pushing anti-environment initiatives and attempting to weaken the
Endangered Species Act.

"It’s ripe for change in a broad range of areas," said Nat Mund, the
league’s deputy legislative director. "We’re looking at a different set of
solutions who will be more focused on protecting natural resources than
exploiting them."

Pierce advised Democrats to start a dialogue about overarching issues, such
as global warming, while passing smaller, "less-sexy" initiatives that
begin to address those broader problems.

"We’ll be setting the agenda and picking off wins, in the meantime, until
2009," when a new president takes office, she said.

But even when that happens, Democrats still may find it tough to pass major
environmental policies, said Bill Kovacs, vice president of environment and
regulatory affairs for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

"That doesn’t mean they’re not going to have oversight hearings," he said.
"That doesn’t mean there isn’t going to be sound and fury. But I’m betting
it’ll be very difficult to get anything through.

"It’s sorta like the old story of, what does the dog do when he catches the
car? Do you really want to be the party that pushes through, let’s say, a
cap-and-trade system for CO2 and limit the amount of energy the country can

He was referring to a proposal to regulate greenhouse gases.

"I’m not sure you do," he said. "I think the voters would clobber them."

‘Dead zone’

The Mississippi River basin bill aims to protect the river all the way to
the Gulf of Mexico, where a "dead zone" of oxygen-impaired ocean has grown
to roughly the size of New Jersey.

Much of the chemical waste in that "dead zone" originates in the river’s
upper basin, which includes Missouri and Illinois and its river main
systems. But few broad-based attempts have been made to examine and
quantify the problems with chemicals and sediment draining into the

Under the bill, the U.S. Geological Survey would get $63 million over a
decade to collect data and create computer models so scientists can
pinpoint the primary sources of such runoff.

"This is something that’s been around for quite some time," said Larry
Shepard, an EPA official who monitors the Mississippi and Missouri rivers.
"Really, it’s been kind of a bogeyman that people aren’t anxious to get

That’s partly because possible solutions would require cooperation and
coordination between all levels of government, as well as agriculture,
industry and other private businesses in multiple states. It could also
involve fundamental changes in how farms and businesses operate.

Rep. Ron Kind, the bill’s sponsor, called sediment and chemical runoff
issues "the greatest threat" facing the Mississippi River. He’d like to win
final approval for the legislation before Christmas, but he might have to
wait until next year.

"In order to achieve maximum buy-in on what needs to be done, it has to be
based on sound science. You can’t have someone coming in speculating what
the problem is and then expect people to hop on board," said Kind, D-Wis.

But that’s not to say that many scientists don’t already suspect where most
runoff comes from.

Industries can contribute; wastewater treatment plants in cities such as
St. Louis and Memphis, Tenn., have discharged significant loads of
chemicals into the river on occasion, Shepard said. But he and others
pointed to farming as the primary source of extra nitrogen and phosphorus
in the river basin.

While certain amounts of both chemicals are necessary for aquatic life to
exist, runoff spikes the river with deadly chemical levels that can kill
marine life or animals that drink the water, and harm public water
supplies, according to the USGS. Sediment runoff can bury the river’s
habitats and clog up shipping lanes.

Incentives in government programs encourage farmers to produce as many
bushels per acre as possible, often prompting them to pump more fertilizers
nto their crops to ensure a larger harvest, said Russ Kremer, president of
the Missouri Farmers Union. Phosphorus and nitrogen are two of the three
main fertilizers farmers apply each spring, a time of year where heavier
rains typically produce more runoff.

"It’s something I think is long-overdue as far as studying, ‘What is the
effect of intensive agriculture systems?’" said Kremer, a livestock farmer
in Osage County. "We’ve never had adequate enough information about that."

Shepard said the data collection and resulting computer models would go a
long way toward convincingly demonstrating that chemical and sediment
runoff are real issues with damaging consequences.

"This bill is intended to at least provide enough information that would
allow us to get past that impediment and at least identify the hotspots,"
he said.

asichko@post-dispatch.com | 202-298-6880