Topic: Gulf of Mexico Dead Zone

April 9, 2012

Dual Legal Actions to Reduce Pollution That Fouls Illinois Water and Fuels Gulf Dead Zone

By Glynnis Collins & Kim Knowles

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.

Watch a video on Dead Zone pollution.

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March 31, 2012

New “Dead Zone” Video from our Collaborative Friends

Prairie Rivers Network has been part of the Mississippi River Collaborative since 2005. Our goal is to improve water quality in the Mississippi River Basin and reduce the size of the Gulf of Mexico “Dead Zone.” This new video from Gulf Restoration Network (our Louisiana colleagues) discusses some of the science and causality behind the Dead Zone. Fertilizer and livestock waste pollution coming from Midwestern farms are a big part of the problem. The video also mentions our legal actions against U.S. EPA for not requiring states to limit nutrient pollution. Check it out!

March 14, 2012

Mississippi River Groups Hit EPA with Dual Legal Actions on Pollution that Fuels Gulf Dead Zone

March 14, 2012

Mississippi River Groups Hit EPA with Dual Legal Actions on Pollution that Fuels Gulf Dead Zone 

(New Orleans, LA)— Today environmental groups challenged the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) refusal to address a critical pollution problem it has acknowledged for decades. The two legal actions filed today seek action from the agency on nitrogen and phosphorus pollution, which stimulates excessive growth of algae, kick-starting a biological process that severely depletes oxygen levels in aquatic ecosystems and chokes marine life. An enormous example of this problem is the “Dead Zone” that forms in the Gulf of Mexico in the summer. In addition, toxic algae blooms result in fish kills, the death of livestock and pets, and damage to drinking water supplies. Addressing Dead Zone pollution is thus necessary to restore health to the Gulf of Mexico and upstream waters of the Mississippi River Basin.

“The ecology and economy of the Gulf of Mexico have paid the price for EPA’s endless dithering about Dead Zone pollution,” said Matt Rota, Director of Science and Water Policy with the non-profit Gulf Restoration Network. “The most meaningful action the EPA can take is to set limits on the amount of these pollutants allowed in theMississippi River watershed so that the fish and the fisheries can recover.”

Members of the Mississippi River Collaborative, represented by the Natural Resources Defense Council, are challenging EPA’s denial of a 2008 petition to the agency asking EPA to establish quantifiable standards and clean up plans for Dead Zone pollution. Separately, several conservation groups are seeking to compel EPA to finally respond to an even older petition – 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.

“Decisive EPA action on Dead Zone pollutants is a decade overdue,” said Glynnis Collins, Executive Director of Illinois-based Prairie Rivers Network. “Illinois is the biggest contributor of pollution that creates this yearly crisis. With little action coming from the state, we clearly need an external push to be a more responsible neighbor.” {Continue Reading »}

May 16, 2011

In the News: Our Lawsuit Against Chicago’s Metropolitan Water Reclamation District Covered in Chicago Tribune

Chicago Tribune MWRD article

The Chicago Tribune and many other news outlets covered our recent lawsuit against the Chicago Metropolitan Water Reclamation District (MWRD) to stop the routine dumping of raw sewage and under-treated wastewater into the Chicago River and Lake Michigan. During heavy rains (anything more than 2/3 of an inch), the pipes that would normally send a combination of wastewater and stormwater to Chicago sewage treatment plants cannot cope with the sheer amount of water and sewage and instead overflow, releasing that bacteria-laden water directly into nearby waters. The regular discharge of water from these treatment plants contains too much phosphorus which causes excessive growth of algae, blocking sunlight and using up oxygen that fish and other aquatic animals need to survive. The release of raw sewage and excessive phosphorous are both in violation of the federal Clean Water Act. The MWRD has actually been under investigation by federal regulators for nearly a decade, but no action has been taken.

A draft agreement on April 21 calls for more specific deadlines to finish the Deep Tunnel project, a labyrinth of large tunnels and reservoirs underground that serve as a holding area for excess water. The MWRD would also pay $670,000 in fines and spend $325,000 on “green infrastructure” that allows rainwater to better absorb into the ground rather than running off into sewers. This pales in comparison to the city of Cleveland, OH, which recently agreed to spend $42 million on green infrastructure and pay fines of $1.2 million.

The lawsuit was brought by Prairie Rivers Network, the Sierra Club, and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). Read the Chicago Tribune article here.

See these additional resources about reducing stormwater pollution:

Prairie Rivers Network’s Stormwater Management Guidebook, a guide to green infrastructure with examples throughout Illinois.

Rooftops to Rivers and Re-Envisioning the Chicago River (published by the Natural Resources Defense Council).  The first is a guide to green strategies for controlling stormwater and combined sewer overflows, and the second includes the benefits of green infrastructure specifically for the Chicago region, with a summary of how everything relates to invasive species such as the Asian Carp.

The lawsuit was also covered in these news outlets:

Huffington Post

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

The Pantagraph (Bloomington-Normal)

Park Forest ENews (Chicago area)

Mother Nature Network

Northwest Indiana Times


May 4, 2011

Press Release: Groups Sue to Stop Chicago Water Regulators from Polluting the Chicago River

Serial Spillers: Groups Sue to Stop Chicago Water Regulators from Polluting the Chicago River

MWRD’s illegal sewage discharges mucking waterways from Chicago to Gulf of Mexico

CHICAGO (May 3, 2011) – A coalition of conservation groups have sued to stop the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District (MWRD) from dumping raw sewage mixed with stormwater, as well as algae-fueling pollution, into the Chicago River system. Effluent from MWRD’s sewage treatment plants and combined sewer overflow pipes regularly violate Clean Water Act standards in the River, impacting downstream waters from Chicago all the way to the Gulf of Mexico according to the suit.

“Keeping raw sewage out of our waters is the District’s core responsibility,” said Ann Alexander, Senior Attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Yet the problem continues unabated, even after three decades and billions of taxpayer dollars. Chicagoland shouldn’t have to wait any longer for the District to do its job right.”

NRDC, Sierra Club and Prairie Rivers Network filed a federal lawsuit today in the Northern District of Illinois over the regional water treater’s pollution problem. The suit points to discharges of pollution from treatment plants that regularly violate federal standards requiring that discharges not cause or contribute to low levels of oxygen, which fish need to breathe; and unnatural sludge or growth of algae, which harms other forms of life in the water.

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April 8, 2011

Prairie Rivers Network to Sue Chicago Polluter

Chicago ranks 14th of the top 30 cities that are at high heat risk
MWRD of Greater Chicago is allowing untreated sewage to flow into the Chicago River.

As reported previously in our press release and covered by the New York Times:

Prairie Rivers Network has joined with the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Sierra Club in notifying the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago (MWRD) that it intends to sue the District for illegally dumping pollution into Chicago area waters. Because the District is so big (its sewage treatment plants release billions of gallons of wastewater every day), the pollution is fouling waterways all the way from Chicago to the Gulf of Mexico.

The notification of intent to sue is the first formal step toward a lawsuit in federal court. Prairie Rivers Network and its partners are threatening a lawsuit because MWRD has steadfastly refused to remove phosphorus to safe levels. Too much phosphorus can be deadly to fish because it triggers the unnatural growth of algae. Algae then suck the oxygen out of the water, depriving fish and other life of the ability to breathe. Phosphorus from MWRD is helping cause the Dead Zone, a huge area in the Gulf of Mexico where fish and other forms of life cannot survive, because there’s not enough oxygen. Prairie Rivers Network is demanding that MWRD remove phosphorus to make the waters safe. {Continue Reading »}