Kentucky said to help feed Gulf area ‘dead zone’

By Andy Mead
January 22, 2009; Lexington Herald-Leader

Kentucky is a significant contributor to a large dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, according to the keynote speaker at a weekend conference on water quality.

Jon Devine, an attorney with the environmental organization Natural Resources Defense Council, cites government studies that say Kentucky contributes five to 10 percent of the nitrogen and phosphorus that is suffocating aquatic life where the Mississippi River empties into the gulf.

The dead zone was estimated last year to cover 20,720 square kilometers — about the size of New Jersey.

Devine will speak Saturday at the Kentucky River Watershed Watch’s 12th annual conference in Midway.

He will discuss a recent report, Missing Protection, of which he was the lead author. The subtitle of his portion of Saturday’s program: The Dead Zone Starts in Kentucky.

Devine argues that two Supreme Court decisions in the past several years, and the way they have been interpreted by the Bush administration’s Environmental Protection Agency and Army Corps of Engineers, have lessened the protections of the Clean Water Act. That, he says, exacerbated the dead zone problem by making it easier to pollute or destroy small streams and wetlands.

In Appalachian Kentucky, the streams and wetlands do a better job than rivers in removing nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus, Devine said.

Most nitrogen gets into waterways from fertilizer used to grow corn or soybeans. Most phosphorus comes from livestock manure.

When the nutrients reach the gulf, they form large algae blooms that die off, depleting the water of oxygen.

What is needed, Devine said, is action by the Obama administration, and Congress, to strengthen the Clean Water Act.

"President Obama said during his campaign that he supports returning the Clean Water Act to the level of protection it provided before, so we are very optimistic about his willingness to sign legislation that fixes this problem," Devine said.

Saturday’s conference also includes talks by Len Peters, secretary of the state Energy and Environment Cabinet, and Stephen Reeder, director of the Kentucky River Authority, as well as a presentation on 2008 water quality testing from Lindell Ormsbee and Malissa McAlister from the Kentucky Water Resources Research Institute at the University of Kentucky.

Reach Andy Mead at (859) 231-3319 or 1-800-950-6397, ext. 3319.