This article is excerpted from Wave Maker's News, our quarterly update on all things water in the Gulf of Mexico, check out the full newsletter here.
Nitrogen and phosphorus pollution from farms and cities across much of the country (and parts of Canada) eventually dumps into the Gulf of Mexico, contributing to the Dead Zone. Photo courtesy of NOAA.The Mississippi River, and by extension the Gulf of Mexico have been treated as the nationâ€™s sewer for decades. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has long known the impacts of nitrogen and phosphorous pollution from agricultural land, animal feeding operations, sewage treatment plants, and industrial facilities. Yet, little to no real action has been taken to lessen the impacts to local streams that are choked with harmful algae or to alleviate the poster child of the impacts of nitrogen and phosphorus pollution: the Gulf Dead Zone.
Due to this lack of action, on March 14 GRN, along with members of the Mississippi River Collaborative filed two legal actions against the U.S. EPA objecting to their failure to address the pollution that causes the Dead Zone.
We are challenging EPAâ€™s denial of a 2008 petition to the agency asking EPA to establish protective standards and cleanup plans for Dead Zone pollution. Separately, we are seeking to compel EPA to finally respond to an even older petition â€“ a 2007 request that EPA modernize its decades old pollution standards for sewage treatment plants and include the Dead Zone pollutants nitrogen and phosphorus in those standards.
Current efforts by EPA and the Mississippi River states are simply not enough. The states and EPA often refer to the Hypoxia â€śActionâ€ť Plan as a mechanism to reduce Dead Zone pollution, but their reliance on these solely voluntary measures is completely inadequate to reach the laudable goal of reducing the size of the Dead Zone to approximately 2,000 square miles. Regretfully, the Dead Zone has only gotten bigger since the development of these plans. In fact over the past five years, the average Dead Zone size is over three times the goal.
It is long past time for the EPA to start addressing the Dead Zone and nitrogen and phosphorous pollution with serious and decisive action. The first real step would be to establish numeric limits for the amount of nitrogen and phosphorus pollution that we will allow in our waters. Once these numbers are set, EPA, states, and other agencies will have a real target upon which they can base policies and regulations.
Matt is GRNâ€™s Science and Water Policy Director.