By SABRINA CANFIELD
NEW ORLEANS (CN) – Environmentalists and legal groups released a scathing report on the quality of the water millions of Americans drink each day, pressing the federal government to do more to protect the nation’s waters.
According to the report, “Decades of Delay: EPA Leadership Still Lacking in Protecting America’s Great River,” excess nitrogen and phosphorus pollution from agricultural and urban runoff in states bordering the Mississippi River is threatening the nation’s drinking water supply.
But that’s not all that is at stake, say the environmentalists and lawyers who call themselves the Mississippi River Collaborative.
Excess nutrients in the water also cause fish kills, unswimmable waters, and a 5,000 square-mile zone in the Gulf of Mexico that cannot support aquatic life, the report says, faulting the federal government and individual states for not doing their share to stop the pollution.
The authors say the federal government has so far refused to take the authority to require states to control nutrients from farms and cities that are contributing to the slow death of the Mississippi River and contributing to the death of a massive portion of the Gulf of Mexico into which it flows.
“It’s a serious problem and it’s not getting better,” said Kris Sigford, water quality manager for the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, who headed the project.
“The results of the EPA’s hands-off approach with the Mississippi River basin states are massive algae blooms and nitrate contamination that make our drinking water unsafe and render lakes and rivers unfit for recreation,” Sigford said.
The environmentalists insist that the current sorry state of the nation’s drinking water supply can be reversed by limiting excess nitrogen and phosphorus runoff into the Mississippi River.
Both pollutants are found in agricultural tools, such as fertilizers, as well as in household detergents, and levels can easily be regulated, if not slashed altogether, the environmentalists say.
But the report rebukes all ten states along the Mississippi for dropping the ball on regulating nitrogen and phosphorus discharges and calls on the Environmental Protection Agency to immediately set standards to eliminate nutrient pollution.
“Though EPA has consistently and emphatically urged states to take measures to combat nitrogen and phosphorus pollution, its encouragement has come without enforceable regulations, specific deadlines, or funding for implementation,” the report found. “Not surprisingly, the problem persists, especially in the Mississippi River, despite a variety of Clean Water Act tools and viable regulatory options available to states.”
The Mississippi River Collaborative looked at the ten states bordering the Mississippi – Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Louisiana – to see how each has handled nitrogen and phosphorus pollution.
Despite EPA’s insistence since 2003 that each state must set limits for how nitrogen and Phosphorus in its waters, currently no states have limits for nitrogen, and just two states (Minnesota and Wisconsin) have set limits for phosphorus.
“EPA’s mandate, as stated on its mission page, is to ‘protect human health and the environment.’ Both are being threatened by nitrogen and phosphorus pollution in the Mississippi River and elsewhere,” the report says.
The report suggests six specific steps EPA can take to protect human health and water quality in the Mississippi River. Recommendations include setting numeric limits of allowable nitrogen and phosphorus in state waters, assessing water quality for nitrogen and phosphorus pollution that creates impaired waterways and ensuring states develop nutrient reduction strategies with specific implementation plans and adequate funding.
“For 20 years, we have been told the EPA and the states would address the nitrogen and phosphorus pollution that causes the Gulf Dead Zone,” said Matt Rota, Senior Policy Director for the Gulf Restoration Network, an MRC member. “This report demonstrates that this simply has not happened. EPA should use the tools outlined in the report to finally act on their commitments.”
A representative of the EPA did not immediately respond to a request for comment.