Groups seek limits on Mississippi, Gulf pollution

07.30.08, 6:00 PM ET
DES MOINES, IOWA – Environmental groups in nine states petitioned the federal government on Wednesday to set and enforce pollution standards in the Mississippi River basin and the Gulf of Mexico.
The petition to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency followed Monday’s announcement that the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico is the second largest to date at 8,000 square miles.
The dead zone is an area of water where oxygen levels are too low to support marine life. It’s caused every year by nitrogen and phosphorus pollution that flows into the gulf from the Mississippi River, much of it from fertilizer runoff from farm fields.
Officials from the groups said the dead zone will continue to grow unless standards are set for nitrogen and phosphorus pollution. The organizations are all from states bordering the Mississippi River – Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Tennessee and Wisconsin.
The groups said the EPA has dropped the ball in enforcing a rule it made in 1998, which required states to set standards for nitrogen and phosphorus pollution in the Mississippi River by 2003.
State’s have been slow to adopt such standards, prompting the groups to ask the EPA to intervene.
"Our feeling is there has been a dead zone at the EPA almost as big as in the Gulf of Mexico," said Jeff Grimes, assistant director of the water resources program at the New Orleans-based Gulf Restoration Network. "They have the responsibility to act. The deadline came and went a long time ago and most of our states don’t have standards … and aren’t enforcing any limits."
Grimes warned that without limits that are enforced, the Gulf of Mexico could face an ecological catastrophe.
"We’re looking at a total ecological shift in the gulf as far as what lives there," Grimes said.
Grimes said the gulf is in danger of becoming a low-oxygen area that could damage one of the nation’s largest fisheries. If rules aren’t created and enforced soon, he said, it could be too late.
"The fear is that we’re going to reach a tipping point where you can longer fix things,’ Grimes said. "If we can reduce the pollution going into the Gulf of Mexico from the Mississippi and reduce the size of the dead zone, we can reduce the catastrophe.
The EPA is required by law to respond to the petition within a reasonable period of time, but Grimes said there is no definition of what’s reasonable.
A telephone message left Wednesday afternoon for officials with the EPA was not immediately returned.
Susan Heathcote, the water program director for the Iowa Environmental Council, said that while the group’s main focus is reducing nutrient pollution in the state’s waterways, it recognizes the national importance of setting and enforcing standards.
"When the EPA set out its requirement in 1998 it was recognized that this was not just a local problem because nitrogen and phosphorus pollution are the leading causes of water impairment in the United States," Heathcote said
She said the petition asks the EPA to set standards for the Mississippi River, which in turn would force states to set standards for the tributaries that empty into the Mississippi.
"The idea of making it a national requirement was a good idea because it requires everybody to do it at the same time, but the way it has worked out, the EPA has failed to enforce that deadline and require states to get it done.
"This is a good start," Heathcote said of Wednesday’s petition. "In this case, it’s the Mississippi and the Gulf of Mexico and we have protecting the gulf as a national priority."
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