Shenandoah River Algae Sparks Objections

Algae in the Shenandoah River caused by agricultural runoff. Photo by Alan Lehman of Shenandoah Riverkeeper.

WASHINGTON (CN) – Algae blooms that have left a Virginia river perpetually covered in foul green slime prompted several conservation groups to sue the Environmental Protection Agency in federal court Tuesday over its failure to force Virginia to address the problem.

“Pollution of the Shenandoah River has caused algae blooms so severe they have been linked to major fish die-offs, severe decline of underwater aquatic plants, and conditions so unsightly and odorous that some visitors have turned away rather than use the Shenandoah River for swimming, boating, and fishing,” the 17-page complaint states.

But the smell of dying algae blooms wreaks havoc, too.

As the algae decomposes, it creates a “horrid” sewage-like smell, according to Jennifer Chavez of Earthjustice, who filed the complaint in Washington, D.C. federal court.

In fact, the smell is so bad that Chavez says Virginia sometimes gets complaints of illegal sewage discharges, only to discover after investigating that dying algae was the culprit.

Chavez filed the May 30 complaint on behalf of Shenandoah Riverkeeper, Potomac Riverkeeper Inc., Potomac River Smallmouth Club and the Warren County Chapter of the Izaak Walton League of America.

The groups claim the EPA arbitrarily and capriciously approved a Virginia Department of Environmental Quality list of polluted waters, which omits the Shenandoah River. That means discharge of the pollutants causing the algae blooms won’t be restricted.

“Rivers naturally have algae in them, everyone understands that,” Chavez said in a phone interview. “But what we see with the Shenandoah River virtually every year, are large sections of the river covered in almost a green, paint-like slime – completely unnatural conditions.”

EPA regulations require all 50 states to compile and submit such a list every two years, which the agency must either approve or deny.

The groups allege that Virginia failed to evaluate all available data and other information that would show the algae blooms – fueled by poorly regulated pollutants like nitrogen and phosphorus – have impaired the river and require restrictions on algae-producing pollutants to meet Virginia’s water quality standards.

“Acting in contravention of the Clean Water Act and its own regulations, EPA approved Virginia’s decision based on its conclusion that the state’s water quality standards are too ‘challenging’ to apply,” the lawsuit states.

The complaint names the EPA and agency administrator Scott Pruitt as defendants.

The mostly nonprofit conservation groups, which have members and staff that use the river for recreation, have asked the court to declare the EPA’s action unlawful, vacate its approval of the polluted-waters list and remand it back to the agency.

“EPA’s approval conflicts directly with the agency’s admonition to DEQ that the state must evaluate the facts and information available to it, and make a determination whether to identify the River as impaired,” the lawsuit says, abbreviating Department of Environmental Quality.

The groups say they have met with DEQ staff since 2010, submitted public comments and provided “clear and extensive evidence” that excessive algae blooms have damaged the Shenandoah River’s water quality.

That includes thousands of photographs, 15 videos, testimonial letters from river users, a systemic evaluation of the extent of the algae problem and a written summary of a lab analysis of algae samples taken from the river in 2010, according to the complaint.

They say they also submitted “readily available evaluation methods used by other states for assessing whether excess algae growth is preventing attainment of applicable water quality standards.”

But the DEQ, which is not named as a defendant, has consistently failed to consider that evidence when deciding whether to list the river as impaired, the lawsuit alleges.

“It appears that DEQ prefers to rely on voluntary efforts – an alternative to regulation – which is all fun and good unless you look at the history of water pollution and see that voluntary efforts have never worked,” Chavez said.

According to the complaint, after the Virginia DEQ rejected Shenandoah Riverkeeper’s nomination of the river for the state’s annual water quality monitoring plan, it said it had no criteria to assess the impact of algae.

For Chavez and her clients, that only underscores the need for regulation.

“This situation really illustrates the need for EPA to act as an oversight body,” Chavez said. “And to step in when states don’t do their jobs.”

The EPA did not respond Wednesday to an emailed request for comment about the lawsuit.

Two other lawsuits filed in recent months have made similar claims against the EPA regarding Lake Erie, which has been plagued by pollution that contributes to the growth of algae blooms.

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