EPA Sued Over Oxygen Standards in Louisiana Waters

NEW ORLEANS (CN) – The Sierra Club and local environmental groups claim the Environmental Protection Agency’s approval of drastically lower standards for dissolved oxygen in 31 Louisiana rivers will allow for more sewage to be dumped in the water.

The Gulf Restoration Network, Little Tchefuncte River Association, Louisiana Environmental Action Network, Louisiana Audubon Council and Sierra Club filed a lawsuit Friday in New Orleans federal court, accusing the EPA and Administrator Scott Pruitt of violating the Clean Water Act.

Represented by lead attorney Lisa Jordan of the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic, the groups claim the revised standards open the door for increased pollution.

“This case is about the EPA’s approval of drastically lowered levels of dissolved oxygen in 31 rivers, streams, creeks, bays, and bayous north and west of Lakes Pontchartrain and Maurepas and extending south and west to the Mississippi River,” the lawsuit states. “To approve these nearly hypoxic standards, EPA disregarded Clean Water Act requirements that water quality criteria must protect the fish and wildlife which live in these waterbodies, relied on unsound science, and lacked a rational basis for the approval.”

The lowered oxygen standards affect popular recreational areas, according to the complaint, including the Tchefuncte, Tickfaw, Amite and Tangipahoa Rivers.

The environmental groups say the goal of the Clean Water Act is to maintain the integrity of the nation’s waters and protect wildlife living within, and the EPA is responsibility for monitoring states’ water-quality standards.

The law outlines three tiers of protection for water quality, the complaint states, ranging from a minimum standard for all states to a higher benchmark for waters in national and state parks and wildlife refuges.

“Sufficient levels of dissolved oxygen in waterbodies like rivers, streams, creeks, bays, and bayous are essential for the survival and propagation of fish and other aquatic life like zooplankton and for the wildlife which rely on them,” the environmental groups’ lawsuit says.

Before the EPA’s approval of the lowered standards, the dissolved oxygen water quality criteria for the affected Louisiana rivers and bayous was 5 milligrams per liter dissolved oxygen for freshwater rivers and stream and 4 milligrams per liter for estuaries, according to the complaint.

But in June 2015, the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality proposed a rule to lower the dissolved oxygen criteria in state waters from 5 milligrams per liter to 2.3 from March through November for 31 inland streams north and west of Lakes Pontchartrain and Maurepas and extending south to west to the Mississippi River, the lawsuit says.

Some of the bodies of water affected by the proposed slash in dissolved oxygen levels are covered by the Clean Water Act’s third tier of water-quality protection, including parts of the Tchefuncte River, the Blind River and Bayou LaCombe.

The EPA approved Louisiana’s revised dissolved oxygen criteria in June 2016, prompting the legal challenge from the Sierra Club and local environmental organizations.

“The drastically lower dissolved oxygen criteria approved by EPA allows significant amounts of additional pollution – including treated sewage – to be discharged into these rivers, streams, creeks, bays, and bayous,” the lawsuit states.

The conservation groups claim the EPA approved the revised dissolved oxygen criteria “without any study of the impact the revised criteria would have on the fish and other aquatic life in the inland rivers, streams, creeks, bays and bayous of the ecoregion.”

They seek an order declaring the EPA’s approval of the new dissolved oxygen criteria violates the Clean Water Act and is “arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, in excess of statutory authority, and not in accordance with the law.”

In addition to the EPA and Pruitt, Region 6 Administrator Anne Idsal is also named as a defendant.

The plaintiffs’ attorney, Jordan, said Tuesday via email that the EPA’s new standard “cuts in half the amount of oxygen which must be maintained in thirty-one of Louisiana’s rivers, streams, creeks, bays and bayous.”

“In doing this, EPA not only prevents these waters from supporting a healthy fish population, but it sets the stage for the state to allow much more pollution into popular recreational waters,” she said. “Once they are degraded in this way, stories of fishing in these waters in ‘Sportsmen’s Paradise’ may become a thing of the past, along with other consequences to the increased pollution this allows.”

The EPA did not immediately respond Tuesday to a request for comment.

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