Report: Nebraska’s waterways are 6th worst in nation for pollution

By Algis Laukaitis, Lincoln Journal Star
19 June 2014

Nebraska’s waterways are the sixth worst in the nation for toxic pollution,  and most of the contamination is because of nitrates, according to a report released Thursday.

In 2012, industrial facilities dumped 10.5 million pounds of toxic chemicals into the state’s rivers and streams, the 72-page report called "Wasting Our Waterways" said.

Nationwide, industry dumped 206 million pounds, polluting more than 17,000 miles of rivers and about 210,000 acres of lakes, ponds and estuaries.

The report was compiled by the nonprofit Environment America Research and Policy Center in Washington, D.C., using data reported to the Environmental Protection Agency’s Toxics Release Inventory for 2012.

"Nebraska’s rivers should be clean — for swimming, drinking and supporting wildlife," said Ally Fields, the group’s clean-water advocate. "But too often, our waters have become a dumping ground for polluters."

According to the report, corporate agribusiness including slaughterhouses and poultry plants were responsible for about one-third of all direct discharges of nitrates to waterways. This is in addition to runoff pollution from factory farms and other agribusiness operations.

High levels of nitrates in drinking water can cause serious health problems in infants. They also contribute to oxygen-depleted “dead zones” in the water.

"The toxic chemicals dumped in Nebraska include chromium and chromium compounds, which cause cancer, and developmental toxins, such as lead and lead compounds, which can affect the way children grow, learn and behave," the group said in a news release.

The report comes as the EPA considers a new rule to restore Clean Water Act protection to more than 60,000 miles of waterways across the nation.

The Lower Platte River, a main source of drinking water for Lincoln and Omaha, ranked fifth in the nation for highest amount of total toxic discharges, with almost 3,726,866 pounds discharged in 2012.

Tyson Fresh Meats Inc., the biggest polluter in Nebraska according to the report, dumped 4,220,510 pounds of toxic pollution into the state’s waterways. Tyson ranked as the biggest polluter in the nation in 2012.

"Water is a critical natural resource and we work to protect it at all of our locations. Our plants, including the one in Dakota City, Neb., comply with the Clean Water Act and state-issued, federally authorized permits that regulate their wastewater treatment systems," said company spokesman Worth Sparkman.

He explained that the plants return treated water into streams and rivers only after it has been treated in a wastewater treatment facility on site in accordance with the requirements of those permits.

Meghan Sittler, coordinator of the Lower Platte River Corridor Alliance, said the group is aware of nitrate pollution problems through water quality monitoring done by state and federal agencies from Columbus to Plattsmouth.

She declined to comment on the report because she had not seen it, but said she was a bit surprised to hear about the high ranking for the Lower Platte.

"We do see a high presence of nitrogen compounds throughout the (Lower Platte) watershed … and it’s something we are trying to address through voluntary measures," Sittler said.

The alliance is in the final stages of completing a watershed management plan that will examine the most common pollutants: nitrates, phosphorous, e.coli and atrazine.