The Gulf dead zone, a stretch of water covering nearly 8,000 square miles where oxygen levels are too low to support marine life, is the second largest in the world.
It is caused every year when farmers fertilize their fields. Nitrogen and phosphorus from fertilizer and phosphorus from animal manure mixes with rainwater and flows from the agricultural lands into the Mississippi River and downstream to the Gulf of Mexico.
Muddy contaminated runoff enters the Gulf of Mexico at Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana. (Photo courtesy USACE)
The petitioners say the EPA has disregarded its responsibility under the federal Clean Water Act to limit nutrient pollution in the Mississippi River.
"EPA's 10 years of foot-dragging must stop," said Kris Sigford, water quality program director for the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy. "Our waters are sick and we're tired of EPA's endless stream of studies, reports, task forces and conferences while they get sicker."
The dead zone will continue to grow, the petitioners argue, unless the EPA sets numeric standards for nitrogen and phosphorus pollution and requires all states in the river basin to meet those standards.
The petition follows Monday's announcement of the Gulf of Mexico's second largest dead zone to date, measuring 7,988 square miles.
Scientists from the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium led by Nancy Rabalais, PhD., found this year's dead zone is the second largest on record since measurements began in 1985 and is larger than the land area of Massachusetts.
Rabalais said the dead zone would have been even larger if Hurricane Dolly had not passed through the area, churning up the waters and restoring some oxygen to the zone's edges.
"Hurricane Dolly's winds and waves caused re-aeration of parts of the dead zone, especially along its western and shoreward edges, just before measurements were taken," said Rabalais.
Commenting on the size of this year's dead zone, Rob Magnien, director of NOAA's Center for Sponsored Coastal Ocean Research, said, "Reducing nutrient pollution to protect coastal resources is one of the greatest ecosystem management challenges that we face nation-wide."
In a report last October, the National Academy of Sciences that the EPA had shown little leadership to clean up these waters, calling the Mississippi River an "orphan." The report concluded that, "the EPA has failed to use its mandatory and discretionary authorities under the Clean Water Act to provide adequate interstate coordination and oversight of state water quality activities along the Mississippi River."
In 1998, the EPA called on states to adopt specific limits on nitrogen and phosphorus pollution, threatening to enact its own limits if states had not complied by 2003.
Every state along the Mississippi has ignored that and other deadlines set by the EPA, but so far, the federal agency has not acted. As a result, inland water quality problems have multiplied and the dead zone has continued to grow.
Without numeric pollution standards, the petitioners maintain, inland states along the Mississippi River have suffered severe water quality problems. Toxic algae blooms have killed fish, livestock, and pets.
Fish kills have been a frequent problem and damages to drinking water supplies have cost major metropolitan areas like St. Paul and Des Moines millions of dollars.
The petition was submitted to EPA Assistant Administrator for Water Benjamin Grumbles by - the Gulf Restoration Network Louisiana Environmental Action Network, Tennessee Clean Water Network, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, Kentucky Waterways Alliance, Missouri Coalition for the Environment, Iowa Environmental Council, Prairie Rivers Network, Environmental Law & Policy Center, Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, Midwest Environmental Advocates, Natural Resources Defense Council and the Sierra Club.
ENS coverage of the Gulf dead zone in the past year includes:
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