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Latest chapter in EPA's epic dithering over algae pollution

Ann Alexander

Posted January 2, 2013

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dog in algae.jpgYou would think that the EPA would be eager to seize hold of opportunities to deal with a massive pollution debacle it characterizes as “one of America’s most widespread, costly, and challenging environmental problems.”   We’d hoped so too.  That’s why a number of environmental groups, primarily ones based in the Mississippi River basin, submitted two petitions to EPA laying out a proposed path forward for checking the spread of toxic green mats of algae that are choking our nation’s waterways and creating a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico bigger than some states.  

Sadly, EPA’s response to the petitions has only served to highlight its paralysis in the face of this challenge.  Following on its denial last year of the first petition, which NRDC has sued over, EPA two weeks ago denied the second petition as well

While the first petition called on EPA to use its standard-setting authority to limit the concentration of algae-fueling pollutants – nitrogen and phosphorus – in lakes, rivers, and streams, the second petition called on it to limit discharge of those pollutants by one of their major sources:  sewage treatment plants.  The petition pointed out that the Clean Water Act requires EPA “from time to time” to take a look at what kind of pollution removal can be achieved by secondary treatment, meaning the biological systems that treatment plants use to clean up sewage before discharging it back into waterways.  Last time EPA did that was in 1985. Although the Act doesn’t define exactly what “from time to time” means, we’re pretty sure it means something other than once every 30 or so years.  Particularly since, in the intervening time, the technology has evolved to the point where it can be used to pretty effectively remove significant amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus from the treated sewage. 

 In its response, EPA claimed it lacked sufficient information to say what kind of nitrogen and phosphorus removal secondary treatment can achieve – even though NRDC had provided it in the petition with extensive technical information regarding the capability of the technology, and invited EPA if it disagreed to perform its own analysis on this pretty important subject.  What was really ironic, though, was the Agency’s blithe assertion that a better way to deal with the problem would be through permits for individual sewage plants, linked to water quality standards for their particular receiving waters – when it had just finished refusing to set water quality standards in response to our other petition. 

motor in algae.jpgThis head-in-the-sand response is merely the latest chapter, unfortunately, in the history of EPA’s epic-scale dithering over the nation’s growing algae problem.  The Agency has known about the huge and growing Gulf “dead zone,” the result of decomposing algae sucking oxygen out of the Gulf waters, since the 1980s.  EPA even said in 1998 that if states did not immediately act to establish standards for nitrogen and phosphorus, it would take charge and do so itself – but never followed through.  And not long after that Lake Erie began to turn green again with the reappearance of slimy, malodorous mats of algae.  (The poor condition of Lake Erie was actually referenced in the original 1971 version of Dr. Seuss’s iconic story of the doomed humming fish, but removed when the lake’s condition improved.)  The problem now threatens Lake Michigan and countless other water bodies throughout the nation, annually ruining recreation, driving up drinking water treatment costs, and in some cases killing pets and threatening human health with its toxic by-products.  EPA, although frequently acknowledging the problem, for all those years has done little more than paint a caricature-quality portrait of bureaucratic paralysis, periodically emerging from hiding to issue yet another “urgent call” for more meetings, study, and collaboration. 

child in algae.jpgEPA has been so paralyzed, in fact, that it didn’t even respond to our petitions for years.  We sent the sewage pollution petition in 2007, and finally had to sue the agency this year in federal district court to get a response.  The Agency didn’t respond to the water quality standards petition, sent in 2008, until we threatened a similar lawsuit.

It’s unfortunate that NRDC and our partners need to relentlessly pressure EPA to take basic steps to address an environmental problem that the Agency itself has identified as costly and massive.  But that’s what we’ll continue to do as long as need be.   Because it’s been pretty well established that dithering over algae is not going to make it go away. 

Photos by Amy Goerwitz

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Peter MaierJan 2 2013 05:07 PM

EPA cannot include treatment standards for nitrogenous waste in is secondary treatment definition, because if it did, it would also have to admit that ignoring nitrogenous (urine and protein) waste in sewage, was the result of not understanding an essential water pollution test, EPA used as the backbone for its NPDES permit regulations. The test as used (5 days instead of 30 days duration) not only ignored 60% of the oxygen exerting waste in sewage, Congress clearly intended to treat under the Clean Water Act (CWA), but worse ignored all the pollution caused by nitrogenous waste, which besides exerting an oxygen demand (like fecal waste) also is a fertilizer for algal growth. Actually each pound of this waste, will created about 20 pound of alga, which when it dies will exerts a similar oxygen exertion as caused (except three time larger) than the original exertion caused by fecal waste. Clearly, even when preventing pollution causing oxygen exertion is the goal of the CWA, as EPA repeatedly has claimed in the past decades, not treating nitrogenous waste is ineffective and a waste of public money, as we now have experienced in the last 40 years. All this caused by a faulty applied pollution test, nobody wants to admit having caused this.

Peter MaierJan 4 2013 02:14 PM

Here are some other requirements under the CWA, EPA ignored. EPA was supposed to implement the CWA on a technology-based program, demanding best treatment technology available, and Congress specifically rejected a water-quality based program. Asking individual states to set their own treatment standards for nitrogenous waste (nutrients) in sewage, clearly violates this requirement. EPA was also supposed to establish at the time and from time to time thereafter, what Best Available Treatment (BAT) was and modify this when better treatment became possible. Another requirement EPA never established, in spite of its own information. EPA clearly failed to implement the CWA, but our legal system clearly is also failing to hold EPA accountable, while only one member of Congress could. and should.

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