WASHINGTON - A new report released Thursday by a coalition of environmental and legal groups calls for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to establish safe and viable water pollution limits for phosphorus and nitrogen along the Mississippi River.
Nutrient pollution from agriculture, industry and local municipalities has spurred algae growth in recreational waters, killed marine life and contaminated drinking water in the ten states that border the Mississippi River.
The EPA has called on states to address the matter and in 2011 recommended eight policies to help curb pollution from nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus.
But the federal agency has offered no enforceable regulations, deadlines for improvements or funding to implement their proposals, according to the Mississippi River Collaborative, a group of organizations dedicated to protecting “America’s Great River.”
And because the EPA’s recommendations were voluntary, no state has implemented more than two of the eight proposals.
“The EPA is the backstop and, right now, the backstop is full of holes,” said Matt Rota, senior policy director for the Gulf Restoration Network, an environmental advocacy group that’s part of the river collaborative.
“Decades of Delay,” a new report released Thursday by the collaborative, argues that because “states are either unwilling or unable to solve” the pollution problems, the EPA must set actual pollution limits and provide the mechanism for enforcing them.
“It is time for (the) EPA to step up and provide leadership and assistance to establish safe and viable pollution limits and provide the regulatory framework and enforcement to back them up,” reads the report. “The protection of human health and the environment in the Mississippi River states demands it.”
The report studied the ten states that border the Mississippi River – Arkansas, Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Tennessee and Wisconsin.
In a statement, the EPA said it can’t solve the problem through “top-down federal action” because nutrient pollution comes from many sources, including some not regulated under federal law.
“All levels of government, industries, agriculture, nongovernmental organizations, academia and the public have important roles,” the EPA statement said. “Many of the most effective tools for addressing nutrient pollution are held by state and local governments. That is why EPA asked states and stakeholders to work with EPA and intensify their efforts.”
The agency’s Hypoxia Task Force works with the 10 border states and two others along the Ohio River to reduce the “dead zone” areas of the river, its basin and the Gulf of Mexico where reduced oxygen levels suffocate marine life. The task force aims to cut the five-year running average area of the Gulf dead zone to less than 5,000 square kilometers by 2035 with “an interim target of a 20-percent reduction of nitrogen and phosphorus loading by 2025,” the EPA statement read.
Although the task force was created in 1997, Rota said the average size of the dead zone remains roughly the same while the task force’s goals for reducing nitrogen and phosphorus have been pushed back.
“That is not what I call progress,” Rota said. “I have not seen any evidence that they are doing things differently or pushing the states in a direction that will result in the 20% interim reduction goal by 2025.”
The collaborative report studied the ten states that border the Mississippi River – Arkansas, Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Tennessee and Wisconsin.
It found that no state has numeric limits for nitrogen and only Minnesota and Wisconsin have limits for phosphorous.
“Even though the EPA put out a plan for states to develop numeric (nitrogen and phosphorus) criteria in 1990, they have not followed through to make sure the states do it,” Rota said. “They just keep giving the states more and more time."
Other findings show that:
- Less than 2 percent of rivers and streams in the ten states are tested for phosphorus and less than one percent for nitrates. Only 3.7 percent are tested for dissolved oxygen, an indicator of nutrient pollution.
- Lakes and reservoirs in the ten states fared better, but their testing rates were still low. Only 26.3 percent were tested for phosphorous, 4 percent for dissolved oxygen and less than two percent for nitrogen.
- No Mississippi River border states use a permitting system to limit nitrogen discharges from sewage plants and other industrial sources.
- Nearly 62 percent of permits that regulate phosphorus discharges have neither limits nor requirements for monitoring.
- Few water body clean-up plans – none in six Mississippi border states and just 5 percent in the four remaining states – include provisions addressing pollution from direct discharges and runoff.
- Among clean-up plans that included efforts to reduce pollution from runoff, 92 percent lacked follow-ups to see if the reductions were reached.