Uphill fight to bring Gulf of Mexico's 'dead zones' back to life

Posted: 10 August 2011

Efforts to clean up the large, and growing, aquatic Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico received a setback this month when the US Environment Protection Agency (EPA) turned down a petition to carry out a clean-up plan.

The EPA has denied the petition, which was supported by a partnership of concerned organisations, despite heavy economic losses to the US fishing industry and continued research that shows the Dead Zone has doubled in size since 1985.

Gulf of Mexico dead zone
A dead zone - already the size of the state of New Jersey - is growing in the Gulf of Mexico, fuelled by nutrient runoff from the swollen Mississippi River. Photo credit Mississippi River Collaborative

Last week, scientists from the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium completed their annual measurement of the Gulf Dead Zone, which measured 6,765 square miles and is larger than the state of Connecticut.

Through the Mississippi River Collaborative, a partnership of environmental organizations and legal centres from states bordering the Mississippi River working on issues affecting the Mississippi River and its tributaries, Kentucky Waterways Alliance petitioned the EPA to set numeric limits on the discharge of pollutants that feed the Dead Zone.

However, last week EPA declined to take responsibility for setting regulations that would address the problem of individual states’ water pollution regulation, which the petitioners described as 'lacklustre and hodge-podge'

Algae blooms

The Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico is an area where there is not enough oxygen in the water to support marine life. It forms every summer, caused by high levels of nitrogen and phosphorus pollution draining from the Mississippi River watershed. The pollution stimulates excessive growth of algae, or blooms. When the dying algae decays it uses up most of the oxygen in the water, which chokes marine life.

The pollution comes from chemical fertiliser escaping farm fields, sewage treatment plant discharges, and polluted runoff from cities. These sources of pollution are along the entire length of the Mississippi River.

“Just days before the announcement that the measured size of the Dead Zone is larger-than-average, the EPA declined to take actions to limit Dead Zone-causing pollution and to implement a clean-up plan,” said Matt Rota, Science and Water Policy Director for the Gulf Restoration Network. “The Dead Zone is detrimental to Gulf sea life and the coastal residents’ way of life, and yet EPA continues to rely on the states to do things they have failed to do for well over a decade.”

Despite the fact that the Dead Zone has ballooned over the past thirty years, EPA denied the petition, filed in 2008 by members of the Mississippi River Collaborative, which asked for immediate action to set numeric limits on Dead Zone-causing pollution in the Mississippi River and Gulf, as well as create an enforceable clean-up plan for the Dead Zone.

The petition claimed that EPA has neglected its responsibility under the federal Clean Water Act to limit pollution in the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico. The petition also showed that the Dead Zone will continue to grow unless EPA sets numeric standards for nitrogen and phosphorus pollution and requires all states in the river basin to meet those standards.

Efforts now in Congress to cut funds for Farm Bill conservation programmes — designed to prevent both cropland erosion and fertilizer run-off pollution — will, the petitioners say - exacerbate the pollution in the river and the Dead Zone.

The EPA called on states in 1998 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 River has ignored that and other deadlines set by EPA, but so far, the federal government has failed to supply urgently needed protections." the Waterways Alliance says.

 Kentucky Waterways Alliance (KWA) is the state’s only nonprofit organization working full-time to protect and restore Kentucky’s waterways. The Mississippi River Collaborative is a partnership of environmental organizations and legal centres from states bordering the Mississippi River as well as regional and national groups working on issues affecting the Mississippi River and its tributaries.

See also: Fertilizers and plastics are poisoning the oceans, says UN