April 9, 2012
This March, Prairie Rivers Network joined our Mississippi River Collaborative partners in launching two lawsuits against US EPA for their failure to regulate nutrient pollution.
Too many nutrients – a problem
Most people know that nitrogen and phosphorus are important nutrients for plants and animals. At high levels in water, however, the beneficial effects of these nutrients become problematic, and the nutrients are considered pollution.
Nitrate, a form of nitrogen, is toxic to people and other animals at high levels. A decade ago, Georgetown, Illinois had to abandon its drinking water reservoir because of high nitrate levels. Water suppliers for Decatur, Danville, and Streator had to install expensive ion exchange systems costing millions of dollars to remove nitrate from polluted reservoir water. Ongoing operation and maintenance expenses cost ratepayers tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars per year.
In rivers and lakes, nitrogen and phosphorus pollution stimulates excessive growth of algae, creating ugly mats or pea-soup scummy water. When the algae die, they rot. The bacteria that decompose them use up most or even all of the oxygen in the water, choking aquatic life. An enormous example of this problem is the “Dead Zone” that forms in the Gulf of Mexico every summer.
Especially in lakes and reservoirs, nutrient pollution can stimulate the growth of blue-green algae. This “pond scum” is unsightly and smells like vomit when it rots – enough to keep people from enjoying boating and swimming. The algae also sometimes release toxic chemicals into the water. Each summer, local communities throughout Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Illinois are forced to officially close beaches because of the potential presence of blue-green algae toxins. The toxins can sicken or even kill people, pets, and livestock.
The sources – Illinois is top contributor of Dead Zone pollution
Most nutrient pollution in Illinois waters and the Mississippi River comes from farmland (especially corn and soybean fields) and from sewage treatment plants. Illinois is the largest source of both the nitrogen and phosphorus pollution that causes the Dead Zone. Illinois earns its special status partly because of the vast extent of industrialized corn and soybean production across our landscape.
We are also home to Chicago’s Metropolitan Water Reclamation District; its seven sewage treatment plants, including the largest sewage treatment plant in the world, send an average of 1.4 billion gallons of treated sewage down the Mississippi River every day.
Little action from regulators
The EPA called on states in 1998 to adopt specific limits on allowable levels of nutrient pollution, and promised to enact its own limits if states had not complied by 2003. Illinois, along with every state along the Mississippi River ignored that deadline. So far, only Wisconsin and Minnesota have taken significant action on their state’s contributions to the problem.
EPA’s continued lack of leadership at a federal level is a serious problem because the Mississippi River flows through or forms the border of 10 states, no one of which can act independently to fully protect the river. Only meaningful federal action by the EPA can unify states behind solutions that match the scope of the problem.
The lawsuits challenge EPA’s refusal to address a critical pollution problem it has acknowledged for decades. Prairie Rivers Network and our Mississippi River Collaborative partners, represented by the Natural Resources Defense Council, are challenging EPA’s denial of a 2008 petition to the agency asking them to establish in-stream standards and clean up plans for nutrient pollution. Separately, we are seeking to compel EPA to finally respond to an even older petition – a 2007 request that the agency modernize its decades-old pollution standards for sewage treatment plants and include nitrogen and phosphorus in those standards.
How will the lawsuits affect pollution?
Standards for allowable levels of nutrient pollution are the necessary starting point for reducing nutrient pollution. We can’t make progress without establishing a target to aim for. Standards will give us a direct avenue to reduce pollution from wastewater treatment plants. Phased in over time, new technologies are affordable and can significantly reduce nutrient pollution.
Unfortunately, the standards will NOT provide a direct avenue for reducing nutrient pollution from farmland, because the agricultural industry is not held accountable for its pollution under current regulatory programs. Our national agricultural policy can and should address this shortcoming. Targets for pollution reduction, in the form of standards, are an essential first step.
We are reducing nutrient pollution in Illinois despite agency inaction
Although state and federal regulators have been derelict in their duties, we are working with partners like the Illinois Chapter of the Sierra Club to reduce nutrient pollution by working directly with communities.
For instance, LaSalle, Plano, Itasca, Mokena, and Sycamore have each agreed to install new technologies that use bacteria to remove both nitrogen and phosphorus from sewage before it is discharged to Illinois streams. The Village of Mahomet agreed to remove phosphorus and nitrogen as well, helping to protect the Sangamon River, a drinking water source for many Illinois families.