EPA should set nutrient limits to block dead zones, agency’s inspector general says

By Mark Schleifstein, The Times-Picayune
Thursday August 27, 2009, 12:22 PM

The Environmental Protection Agency should move immediately to adopt enforceable limits on the release of nutrient pollutants — such as fertilizer and sewage — into rivers and streams to halt the creation of dangerously low oxygen areas in water bodies, and the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico should be one of its first targets, the agency’s Office of Inspector General said in a report made public today.

"We believe selecting nationally significant waters and acting to set standards for nutrients in them is a minimal first step if EPA is to meet the requirements of the (Clean Water Act)," the report said.

"Critical national waters such as the Gulf of Mexico and the Mississippi River require standards that, once set, will affect multiple upstream states," the report said. "These states have not yet set nutrient standards for themselves; consequently it is EPA’s responsibility to act."

Nutrient pollution is regulated under the federal Clean Water Act, which requires federal and state governments to assure that rivers, streams, estuaries and coastal waters are "fishable and swimmable."

The report studied states whose nutrients were carried to the Gulf "because excess nutrients have resulted in its having one of the largest dead zones in the world."

Research has shown that the Gulf of Mexico’s dead zone forms during the spring and summer after nutrients from 41 states — including Midwest farms and sewage treatment plants — is carried down the Mississippi River, where they provide food for the growth of algae.

The algae bloom in fresher surface water along the Louisiana and Texas coastlines and then die and sink into saltier water at the bottom, where its decomposition creates hypoxia, or low-oxygen water conditions. The result can be death for organisms living on the bottom, while fish and shrimp attempt to escape by swimming to water offshore containing more oxygen.

Nutrient pollution can create similar algae blooms in rivers and streams and in other estuary systems, such as Chesapeake Bay. Some algae species can be poisonous to humans and wildlife.

For the past 11 years, EPA has relied on state governments to adopt their own nutrient pollution standards "without any meaningful monitoring or control," the report said. But only a handful of states have adopted standards, and none of the state standards take into account the effects of nutrients on states downstream, or meet the nutrient reduction goals set by EPA, the report said.

"EPA did not establish priorities, enforceable milestones or adequate measures to assess progress," the report said, and its current approach "holds little promise" that states will create the standards EPA already has said are necessary for nitrogen, phosphorus, chlorophyll-a and water clarity.

"States have not been motivated to create these standards because implementing them is costly and often unpopular wit various constituencies," the report said

The report recommends the EPA:

• Select "waters of national value," including the Gulf, where numeric standards for nutrient pollution should be set.

• Set those standards.

• Establish EPA and state accountability for setting similar standards for the rest of the nation.

In its response to the report, EPA Acting Assistant Administrator Michael Shapiro agreed with much of the report’s conclusions, but said the agency believed the same results could be achieved by adopting a national "strategic approach," instead of first focusing on waters of national concern like the Gulf.

He said the agency could develop that program in 2010.