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Environmental groups sue EPA to limit nutrient pollution in the Mississippi River Basin

Updated 4:43 p.m. with comment from Glynnis Collins of the Prairie Rivers Network.

A coalition of environmental groups is taking legal action to push the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to limit nutrient pollution.

In a suit filed yesterday by the Natural Resources Defense Council on behalf of the Mississippi River Collaborative and others, the environmental groups ask EPA to set limits on nitrogen and phosphorus in the waters of the Mississippi River Basin and northern Gulf of Mexico. The suit challenges EPA’s denial of a 2008 petition to the agency asking EPA to establish quantifiable nutrient pollution standards and cleanup goals.

Nitrogen and phosphorus pollution in the Mississippi River and its tributaries are responsible for the Gulf of Mexico “dead zone,” an area of algal blooms and low oxygen that cannot support aquatic life. Last summer, the dead zone reached 6,765 square miles, an area almost the size of New Jersey.

The major sources of nitrogen and phosphorus contributing to the formation of the Gulf dead zone are upstream agricultural fields, industrial livestock operations, and sewage treatment plants. 

Glynnis Collins, the executive director of the Illinois-based Prairie Rivers Network, says her state is the largest source of dead zone pollution.

"Illinois earns this special status for two reasons: First, the industrial scale of corn and soybean production on our farmland is a major source of nutrient pollution," Collins said. "And second, Illinois is home to Chicago's metropolitan water reclamation district."

Chicago's sewage is another major source of nutrient pollution to the Gulf.

In a separate lawsuit, the environmental groups are seeking to compel the EPA to respond to a 2007 petition asking that the agency modernize its pollution standards for sewage treatment plants and include the nutrients nitrogen and phosphorus in those standards.

Collins says the EPA hasn't updated sewage treatment standards since 1985.

"We believe now that the technology exists and is affordable and is workable to remove nutrients when you're treating sewage, which hasn't been part of the expectations in the past," Collins said.

Collins also said that neither suit directly addresses fertilizer pollution from agricultural fields, since crop production isn't covered by the Clean Water Act.

Agriculture is by far the largest source of nutrient pollution contributing to oxygen depletion in the Gulf of Mexico.