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Missouri Environmentalists Sue EPA, Seeking To Stop Runoff Pollution In Lakes

A view of Lake Taneycomo in February 2018.
Eli Chen | St. Louis Public Radio
The Missouri Coalition for the Environment alleges that the Environmental Protection Agency violated the Clean Water Act when it did not require Missouri to impose stricter limits on runoff pollution in lakes.

Updated at 1:09 p.m. with comments from environmentalists A Missouri environmental advocacy group is suing the Environmental Protection Agency, claiming that it has failed to prevent farm runoff from polluting Missouri’s lakes. 

The EPA last December approved a plan the Missouri Department of Natural Resources developed to monitor nutrient pollution in the state’s lakes. Excessive amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus that largely come from farm runoff can threaten aquatic wildlife and public health. 

The Washington University Interdisciplinary Environmental Law Clinic, on behalf of the Missouri Coalition for the Environment, filed suit against the agency today in U.S. District Court in Jefferson City. The suit alleges that the agency violated the Clean Water Act by allowing Missouri to pursue an ineffective strategy for cleaning up its lakes.

“The standards as written are reactive, and they wait until a lake or reservoir is already polluted before they kick in,” said Heather Navarro, executive director of the Missouri Coalition for the Environment. “Our waters are greatest natural resource in the state, and we must protect it from rapid agricultural industrialization and a changing climate.”

The environmental group wants the federal court to compel the EPA to disapprove Missouri’s nutrient standards for lakes. It also seeks changes to those standards that comply with the Clean Water Act.

Heavy runoff from farms, stormwater in urban areas and sewage discharges can cause large amounts of algae, called algal blooms, to coat waterways. When all the algae die off, oxygen levels plummet, leading to fish kills and the formation of dead zones. Midwest farm runoff is a major contributor to the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, the second-largest dead zone in the world. 

It took a decade for the EPA to approve Missouri’s water quality standards for lakes, which account for a third of the state’s watershed. DNR submitted a plan to the EPA in 2009, which the agency rejected two years later. 

Then in 2016, the Missouri Coalition for the Environment used the Clean Water Act to sue the EPA for failing to force the state to regulate nutrient pollution. A court-approved settlement required the EPA to come up with a plan at the end of 2017

Federal officials recommended that Missouri consider nutrient standards that are high enough to protect aquatic life, recreational uses and drinking-water resources.

“What DNR ended up producing was a criteria that protects only aquatic life, and that criteria is based on protecting specifically sportfish as opposed to the entire aquatic community,” said Peter Goode, an environmental engineer at Washington University.

The EPA’s proposal set stricter thresholds for nitrogen and phosphorus than the state’s plan. Under the federal plan, 113 lakes, including Lake Springfield and Lake of the Ozarks, would have been considered impaired. The state’s plan considers 34 lakes impaired. 

Even if a lake contains levels of nitrogen and phosphorus that exceed the DNR’s thresholds, it’s not considered impaired. DNR officials only will label a lake impaired if it exceeds the state’s limit for chlorophyll-a, a standard that only protects aquatic life, Goode said.

DNR officials said they could not comment on pending litigation. 

Some researchers and residents supported Missouri’s plan because it would impose lower costs on wastewater treatment plants. Environmental advocates did not support either proposal. 

Joe Pitts, executive director of the James River Basin Partnership, fished frequently at Lake Springfield in the 1960s and '70s. After he retired from a career as a DNR environmental specialist in 2010, Pitts attempted to go kayaking and fishing like he used to, but found that the lake had become overtaken by a large algal bloom. 

“I was so disappointed by this that I limit my visits now in the spring and late fall when the water is in somewhat better quality,” said Pitts, who spoke at a press conference held to announce the lawsuit. “It was at this point I decided not to eat fish from the lake.”

Missouri mainly addresses runoff by using its Parks, Soils and Water Sales Tax program to pay farmers a portion of the costs to plant cover crops and use other practices that prevent soil erosion. The state does not set standards for runoff nutrients in its rivers and streams. 

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Eli is the science and environment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.