Quick Hit Steven Ross Johnson Friday March 23rd, 2012, 1:09pm

Illinois' Significant Contribution To The Gulf Of Mexico Dead Zone

Illinois has been cited as one of the largest polluters of the Mississippi River, according to a coalition of environmental groups that said fertilizer runoff from the state’s farm industry as well as sewage from Chicago are key factors in the creation of a “dead zone” the size of Massachusetts within the Gulf of Mexico.

The groups, which included the National Resource Defense Council, Gulf Restoration Network and the Illinois-based Prairie Rivers Network, filed a pair of lawsuits last week against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in an effort to force the government to set state water quality standards and tighten limits on the level of pollution coming from wastewater treatment plants.

The coalition, which recently held a briefing on the issue, said the lawsuits were in response to the EPA’s inaction to a 2007 petition urging it to set stronger wastewater treatment standards, as well as the agency’s denial of a 2008 petition asking for a set of water quality standards, in which the government stated that a federal set of rules was “...not a practical or efficient way to address nutrients at a national or regional scale.”

“It is an effort to force the setting of numeric baselines for just how much pollution we can have present in our waters,” said NRDC spokesman Josh Mogerman. “This is an issue the EPA has acknowledged was a very serious need for 14 years now, but hasn’t been willing to take because the issues associated with it are very thorny.”

Of particular concern is the amount of nitrogen and phosphorous running into the Mississippi River from large-scale agricultural production, such as seen in Illinois, as well as the amount of pollution that comes from big urban wastewater treatment programs such as Chicago’s Metropolitan Water Reclamation District, which is the largest in the region.

The effects have left an area within the Gulf that stretches from Louisiana to as far west as Texas where pollutants have limited oxygen within the water making it difficult for aquatic life to survive. “It does appear that increased nitrogen loading has actually damaged the organic soils in the Delta causing land loss and making us much more susceptible to hurricanes,” Louisiana State University Professor Dr. Eugene Turner said.

According to PRN Executive Director Glynnis Collins, nutrient pollution has also had a significant impact on Illinois communities, with some towns being forced to switch water sources or install expensive water treatment systems.

“Standards – that baseline – is the necessary starting-off point for controlling the nutrient pollution that harms local waters and is the largest contributor to the dead zone,” Collins said. “We can’t go anywhere without establishing the target that our nutrient-reduction efforts are aiming for.”

Collins said even though her group has been a part of Illinois’ efforts to examine the problem, she was not optimistic the state would implement any real action to curb its level of nutrient pollution.

“They have been for the past 10 years working to develop water-quality standards for Illinois,” Collins said. “It’s been 10 years, and I honestly don’t see a lot of hope that anything is going to be coming out of the state soon.”

In an e-mail response, U.S. EPA spokeswoman Enesta Jones wrote that the agency was in the process of reviewing the lawsuit, and cited its 2011 letter in response to the coalition’s 2008 petition for a description of its positions on the issues.

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