WASHINGTON, Nov. 17, 2016 - The Environmental Protection Agency has repeatedly failed to fulfill its promises to attack the problem of nutrient runoff in the Mississippi River Basin, a coalition of environmental groups said in a report released today.

“Eighteen years of forming task forces, encouraging voluntary pollution reduction measures, and sponsoring scientific studies have not resulted in EPA meeting its own goals” to reduce nutrient pollution and shrink the so-called Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico, said the report from the Mississippi River Collaborative, which includes the Environmental Working Group, the Gulf Restoration Network and 11 other legal and environmental groups from Mississippi River Basin (MRB) states.

The Dead Zone, “where nutrient-fueled algal blooms annually deplete coastal waters of life-giving oxygen,” is nearly 6,500 square miles, or the size of Connecticut and Rhode Island combined, the report said. But EPA has not used its Clean Water Act authority to force the 10 Mississippi River Basin states to set numeric standards for waters in their states, such as lakes, rivers and streams.

In 1998, for example, EPA developed a Clean Water Action Plan in which it “promised to develop nutrient criteria for water body types and ecoregions by 2000, and to promulgate nutrient water quality standards for those states that failed to do so within three years of EPA’s issued criteria,” the report said.

EPA, however, “never promulgated standards for the states as promised,” the report said. And despite calling on states to adopt numeric criteria by the end of 2003 and declaring that it would issue the criteria if the states didn’t, “EPA has never taken any action to promulgate such standards for any state in the MRB.”

“It is time for EPA to use its Clean Water Act authority to hold states accountable for implementing nutrient reduction strategies,” said Matt Rota, senior policy director for the Gulf Restoration Network, in a teleconference today announcing the report’s release.

And Susan Heathcote, water program director for the Iowa Environmental Council, said that “to solve regional and state water quality problems, we need coordinated action led by EPA.”

EPA, however, is moving backward, not forward, Rota said. He said in a September memo – titled “A Renewed Call to Action” – from EPA Deputy Assistant Administrator Joel Beauvais to state environmental agencies, “amounts to nothing new in terms of required actions by the states.” In fact, it “seems to backtrack on important elements” of a 2011 “framework” developed by the agency to address nutrient pollution.

In the memo, “the framework’s call for the establishment of work plans and phased schedules for nitrogen and phosphorus criteria development is replaced by an EPA promise to simply ‘advocate the benefits’ of adopting such criteria.”

Runoff and soil erosion from fertilized agricultural areas and lawns are among the major sources of phosphorous and nitrogen entering waterways. Other major sources include erosion from river banks, river beds, deforestation and sewage effluent.

The report details the progress made since the 1990s. “Only two of the 10 MRB states (Minnesota and Wisconsin) have EPA-approved numeric criteria for phosphorus, and none have EPA-approved nitrogen criteria.”

Iowa Corn Growers Association President Kurt Hora and Iowa Corn Promotion Board President Larry Clever, reached at their offices today, said they’re working with farmers to encourage and promote practices to reduce nutrient pollution.

“We’re working with a lot of organizations across the state to be better stewards,” said ICGA President Kurt Hora. “Farmers do not want to pollute the water.”

But low commodity prices make it more difficult for them to find the money to implement conservation practices. Hora said a top priority for ICGA in the coming state legislative session is to find a permanent funding source for water quality improvements.

Clever noted that one effect of the lower prices farmers are getting for their crops is that they are using less fertilizer and applying it more precisely.

Lisa Cassady, public relations manager for the groups, provided figures showing that more farmers are planting cover crops than ever before and that Iowa farms “lead the nation in acres of grass strips within and along the edges of fields to prevent erosion.”


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