Report: EPA fails to protect river

By Chris Kirkham
Times Picayune; October 17, 2007

The Environmental Protection Agency and states along the Mississippi River must be more vigilant in controlling the flow of pollutants in the river, many of which come from fertilizers used on farms upstream and eventually contribute to the annual "dead zone" that forms off Louisiana‘s coast, according to a report from the National Research Council.

The comprehensive report, more than two years in the making, points out many of the issues that have caused the Gulf of Mexico‘s oxygen-depleted dead zone to expand over the past few decades.

Federal environmental laws have been successful in targeting overt river pollution such as discharges from sewage-treatment plants. But the Clean Water Act, the 1972 law controlling pollution in the nation’s waters, has little control over diffuse sources of pollution such as fertilizer runoff from farms.

"As a result of limited interstate coordination, the Mississippi River is an ‘orphan’ from a water quality monitoring and assessment perspective," the report states. "The lack of a centralized Mississippi River quality information system and data gathering program … acts as a barrier to maintaining and improving water quality along the Mississippi River and into the northern Gulf of Mexico."

The report points out that while individual states have implemented measures to control pollution from runoff into streams and rivers, communication among the states is lacking. Even though the Clean Water Act is less specific about controlling natural runoff into the river, the study’s authors say the EPA has not exerted its authority to work with individual states throughout the river system.

Nutrients in fertilizers such as nitrogen and phosphorus eventually wash into tributaries and streams that feed the Mississippi River and eventually the Gulf of Mexico.

As temperatures rise in late spring, those nutrients combine with sunlight to fuel explosive algae blooms that cloud waters and suck up the oxygen available for marine life. For the Gulf’s commercial and recreational fishing industries, a huge swath of the Gulf is essentially off limits.

This year’s "dead zone" was one of the largest ever recorded, measuring 7,915 square miles — close to the size of New Jersey.

"The main point is that the EPA has more authority than it’s using under the Clean Water Act to reduce the nutrients in the river," said Nancy Rabalais, a member of the committee convened to draft the report and a lead researcher on the dead zone at the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium laboratory in Cocodrie. "The states would need to have a plan, but the EPA should be pushing more for higher standards … EPA could hold these states’ feet to the fire."

The study points out that the EPA worked with northeastern states to improve water quality in Maryland‘s Chesapeake Bay, and that the agency should lead Mississippi River states in the same way.

Among many recommendations, the report says EPA should develop a riverwide data collection and pollution monitoring system, and should push states to develop limits for the amount of nutrients that can wash into the Mississippi.

The agency and the U.S. Department of Agriculture also should target particular parts of the river that contribute to the most pollution runoff problems, the report says. The USDA has several farm subsidy programs meant to encourage farmers to reduce runoff into streams and rivers, but many of these programs are voluntary.

. . . . . . .

Chris Kirkham can be reached at or (504) 826-3786.