The Oil Industry isn’t the only culprit in the slow destruction of the Gulf of Mexico — environmental groups claim that an area the size of Massachusetts is now a “dead zone due to Mississippi River pollution. A dead zone is an area with such low levels of oxygen that the waters are unable to support marine life – and a number of environmental groups, including the Gulf Restoration Network and the Natural Resources Defense Council are suing the Environmental Protection Agency for its failure to implement more stringent water quality standard and stronger regulations for wastewater treatment.
Image from NOAA Environmental Visualization Laboratory
The environmental groups have filed lawsuits in New Orleans and New York which “seek action from the [EPA] on nitrogen and phosphorus pollution, which stimulates excessive growth of algae, kick-starting a biological process that severely depletes oxygen levels in aquatic ecosystems and chokes marine life,” according to the Gulf Restoration Network.
With 41% of the U.S.’s wastewater running into the Mississippi, huge quantities of fertilizers and other chemicals from farms and cities across the nation are carried into the Gulf of Mexico. Each summer, as the water heats up, the growth of these microscopic organisms surges, perpetuating the Gulf’s dead zone.
While the Gulf’s “dead zone” represents a sizable effect of the Mississippi’s pollution, GRN highlights that the pollution also poses significant water quality concerns upriver: “seasonally the Raccoon and the Des Moines Rivers in Iowa carry excessive levels of nitrates, requiring special treatment before the water is safe enough for Des Moines-area residents to drink.”
Matthew Rota, director of Science and Water Policy at the Gulf Restoration Network described to the AP that “The Mississippi and the Gulf have been the nation’s sewer for decades and it’s well past the time for EPA to take these first steps… We need that first step to make the changes that need to happen.”
In 2008 the groups petitioned the EPA to become more active in managing Mississippi River pollution, but their petition was denied, with the EPA claiming that comprehensive water quality standards “would not be the most effective way to address the “significant water quality problems facing our nation.”” These recent lawsuits challenge the EPA’s denial of the previous water quality standards petition. The EPA has yet to respond.