Environmental connection: An editorial

By Editorial page staff, The Times-Picayune
November 17, 2009, 11:01PM

Ms. Jackson, who was in New Orleans Tuesday for a national brownfields conference, can speak with some authority on how people in this region think. She’s a native New Orleanian who happened to be here visiting family as the storm approached in 2005, and on this matter, her observation is on target. Coastal wetlands loss has been a concern for many years, but that concern is not theoretical. Everyone who lives along our battered coast has experienced our increased vulnerability to storm surge because of the loss of our natural buffers. 

But while coastal erosion is the most critical environmental issue this area faces, it’s not the only one. New Orleans area residents know first hand how destructive pollution is. 

We’ve seen the dead zone mushroom in the Gulf of Mexico summer after summer, the result of nutrient pollution that flows down the Mississippi River. And we share with other cities the legacy of lead in gasoline as well as in paint and pipes, a particular problem for a city with old housing stock. 

As she has traveled to other communities across the country, Ms. Jackson said that she has been struck by the interest people have shown in environmental issues, in a very local way, and she sees giving them a voice as part of her role.  

That’s fortunate for New Orleans. Our environmental woes are urgent, and it’s encouraging to hear that she plans to listen and to look for ways that her agency can act. She also took an aerial tour of the coast Tuesday, and it’s good that another member of the Obama Cabinet has seen the dramatic impact of erosion.

When it comes to the dead zone, Ms. Jackson said that she is looking at what EPA can do, both in a leadership role and a partnership role, to address the low oxygen problem in the Gulf. The Clean Water Act was intended to address not only pollution coming from factory pipelines but so-called non-point source pollution, she said. That’s the kind of pollution that’s causing the Gulf dead zone; nitrogen and phosphorus from farmland and municipal waste runoff into the Mississippi River and eventually enter the Gulf. While the Clean Water Act has been more successful in combating pollution from specific sources, the agency does have some authority to deal with non-point source pollution, too. 

Louisiana’s concern about the dead zone isn’t limited to what’s happening in the Gulf of Mexico, although the changes to that ecosystem are quite worrisome. Coastal restoration work is likely to rely in large part on river diversions to deposit sediment in marshes, and there are questions about what the heavy load of nutrients might do in those scenarios.  

That’s all the more reason for EPA to step in and take a strong leadership role on this issue.