Kentucky, Indiana blamed for polluting Gulf watersBy James Bruggers
Louisville Courier – Journal, February 4, 2008
There’s a Massachusetts-size "dead zone" in the Gulf of Mexico that’s threatening a $6 billion fishing industry there — and Indiana and Kentucky are getting some of the blame.
Findings by the U.S. Geological Survey put the two states in the top six among 31 states with waters that drain excess nitrogen and phosphorous into the Gulf, from sources such as farms, sewage treatment plants and power-plant emissions.
While nitrogen and phosphorous are essential for healthy aquatic life, an overabundance sets off rampant algae growth. When algae dies and sinks to the bottom, its decomposition consumes oxygen, creating a condition called hypoxia that suffocates fish and other animals that can’t make it to healthy water.
And that’s a costly problem: The economic value of commercial and recreational fishing in the Gulf fishery was estimated at more than $6 billion in 2005 by the Gulf Fishery Management Council, which manages fishing from the end of state waters out to 200 miles.
"Farms, cities and suburbs are overfeeding the Gulf," said Benjamin Grumbles, who directs the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s water program, and is chairman of a Mississippi River/Gulf of Mexico Watershed Nutrient Task Force. "The key is to help the Mississippi River system deliver a more balanced diet of nutrients."
Grumbles said the new federal findings "can help steer government action and citizen stewardship to get us more bang for the buck, and cut the size of the dead zone in faster and fairer ways."
States study report
Kentucky and Indiana regulators said last week that they were still reviewing the report.
Representatives of environmental agencies in both states said they have been working to develop statewide water quality standards for nitrogen and phosphorous. They also noted they have existing programs aimed at reducing nutrients in their waters, such as requiring farms to have nutrient management plans.
Amy Hartsock, a spokeswoman for the Indiana Department of Environmental Management, said problems in the Gulf are a "main driver" in development of new Indiana water quality standards.
Tom Van Arsdale, manager of the water quality branch for the Kentucky Division of Water, agreed that nutrients cause problems in Kentucky waters, as well as in the Gulf.
But he questioned the USGS findings, which trace more of the problem to Kentucky than was previously thought.
"We aren’t totally comfortable with the analysis that USGS has done," he said. "It’s open to some scientific debate."
The federal study "is really the first time that there’s really been a finger pointing at Kentucky in particular," agreed Peter Tennant, deputy director of the Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission, which establishes water quality standards for the Ohio River.
The federal study said Kentucky contributed 6.1 percent of the nitrogen into the Gulf, and 9 percent of the phosphorous — that ranks sixth and fifth respectively. Indiana contributed 10.1 percent of the nitrogen and 8.4 percent of the phosphorous, ranking third and sixth.
Richard Alexander, a USGS scientist and the lead investigator in the study, said one explanation for the Kentucky numbers is that scientists now recognize phosphorous is a bigger part of the problem, and researchers found significant amounts of phosphorous washing off pasture and range land.
He said the study also found that larger, slower-moving rivers like the Ohio are less able to naturally eliminate nutrients before they get into the Gulf.
As a result, the study found that a nine-state region — Illinois, Iowa, Indiana, Missouri, Arkansas, Kentucky, Tennessee, Ohio and Mississippi — contributes more than 75 percent of nitrogen and phosphorous to the Gulf, while covering just a third of the 31-state Mississippi River drainage area.
Not tackling the problem, Alexander said, "poses a threat to the economic and ecological health to one of the nation’s most important fisheries."
Taking steps for a solution
The Mississippi River/Gulf of Mexico task force, which was created in 1997 to shrink the dead zone, recommended this month that states contributing the most to the problem enact new nutrient reduction strategies by 2013.
Part of that would involve states establishing standards to limit the concentrations of the nutrients in their waters.
That could result in stepped-up scrutiny or potential controls on nutrient sources — something one Kentucky environmentalist said is long overdue.
Judy Petersen, executive director of the Kentucky Waterways Alliance, said the study "means we can’t keep putting off developing these standards. This is going to be critical to our state, as well as the wider region, including the dead zone."
Kentucky Farm Bureau spokesman Gary Huddleston said the report is being reviewed, particularly for any regulatory proposals that could grow out of it.
Huddleston noted that farmers prefer nutrients go to their crops rather than waterways — and could be open to ideas for reducing any loss of nutrients.
"There’s nobody in the world that has as much incentive to make sure that that goes into a plant root versus a creek or a river than the guy who’s paying for it," he said.
He also said the statistics might not take into account changes in farmers’ practices in recent years to fence livestock out of waterways and use manure more carefully.
Chip Keeling, a spokesman for LG&E, said the company is investing more than $850 million in additional environmental controls, which are aimed at reducing nitrogen emissions.
Tennant, meanwhile, said sewage treatment plants along the Ohio River could control some nitrogen and phosphorous for a modest expense, but substantial reductions would be much more expensive.
Reporter James Bruggers can be reached at (502) 582-4645. Reporter Gregory A. Hall contributed to this story.