Report Raises Algae Alarm
They call it the green slime, a toxic ooze of algae that covered lakes and other water bodies across the United States this summer, closing beaches in Wisconsin and Kentucky, and killing scores of dolphins, manatees, birds and fish in Florida, a report says.
At least 21 states closed lakefront beaches and issued public health advisories as a result of toxic algae between May and September; last year 20 states took similar actions.
Toxic algae is the byproduct of the same types of pollution that causes dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico and the Chesapeake Bay - phosphorous and nitrogen from livestock manure and chemicals sprayed on crops such as corn that spills from farms into assorted waterways during moderate to heavy rains.
Urban sewage overflows that send millions of gallons of stormwater mixed with raw human waste during rains also contributes to the problem, even though such point-source pollution, unlike most non-point-source farm pollution, is heavily regulated by the federal government, environmentalists say.
The effects of polluted runoff is made worse by the changing climate, said Hans Paerl, professor of marine and environmental sciences at the University of North Carolina. “Global warming and intensification of major storms and droughts play major roles in the spread of toxic blue-green algal blooms worldwide.”
At least one drinking-water provider, Des Moines Water Works, is struggling to clean nitrates from water it supplies to a half-million customers as a result of polluted runoff from farms.
Nitrates recently spiked to twice the level the Environmental Protection Agency allows, forcing the utility to pass the million-dollar cost of cleaning water drawn from the Raccoon and Des Moines rivers to ratepayers.
The report, “Toxic Algae: Coming Soon to a Lake Near You?”, was released Tuesday by the National Wildlife Federation’s Great Lakes Regional Center, an environmental nonprofit group, and Resource Media, a nonprofit public relations organization, to raise national awareness of the problem. It describes a growing toxic danger that threatens human health and has claimed the life of at least one person, more than 20 pets since 2001 and a multitude of marine life.
The report follows a federal court’s ruling ordering the EPA to fulfill its obligation under the Clean Water Act and draw up a plan to limit the flow of pollution into the Mississippi River, which feeds into the gulf.
In a Sept. 20 decision written by Judge Jay Zainey, the U.S. District Court for Eastern Louisiana sided with environmental groups that challenged the EPA’s “hands-off approach” to managing pollution.
An EPA attempt to dismiss the suit was denied. The court was not persuaded by the agency’s argument that it was leaving it to states to manage pollution, with EPA’s help, because it had no jurisdiction to compel a cleanup.
Zainey gave the EPA six months to at least begin to develop a plan. A spokesman for the Department of Justice, which represented the federal government in the suit, said only that its lawyers were reviewing the decision and had not decided its next step.
The suit was filed by several nonprofit environmental groups, including the Environmental Law and Policy Center, Minnesota Center for the Environment, Iowa Environmental Council in Des Moines and the Natural Resources Defense Council, among others.
“We are gratified that EPA cannot duck this important decision, and hope (it) takes quick and decisive action to control widespread nitrogen and phosphorus pollution in the Mississippi River,” said Kris Sigford, the water quality director at Minnesota Center for the Environment.
“Lake recreation is a big business in Iowa—generating $1.2 billion in annual spending and supporting 14,000 jobs,” Susan Heathcote, the water program director of the Iowa Environmental Council in Des Moines, said.