PI Original Mose Buchele Thursday July 31st, 2008, 1:18pm

As Crops Grow, So Does "Dead Zone"

On Monday, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced that
this year's "dead zone" in the Gulf of Mexico will be the second
largest to date. A dead zone is an area of the ocean that cannot
support marine life because rampant algae blooms suck all ...

On Monday, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced that this year's "dead zone" in the Gulf of Mexico will be the second largest to date. A dead zone is an area of the ocean that cannot support marine life because rampant algae blooms suck all of the oxygen out of the water. This year, the affected area will cover 8,000 square miles.

While the Gulf of Mexico is a long way from the cornfields of Illinois, Midwestern agriculture is, in fact, contributing to this ecological disaster. As fertilizer from local farmland runs down the Mississippi and into the ocean, it encourages the growth of algae and, by extension, the dead zone. This is why a coalition of environmental groups in Illinois and eight other states petitioned the EPA yesterday to "set and enforce pollution standards in the Mississippi River basin and the Gulf of Mexico":

The groups said the EPA has dropped the ball in enforcing a rule it made in 1998, which required states to set standards for nitrogen and phosphorus pollution in the Mississippi River by 2003.

States have been slow to adopt such standards, prompting the groups to ask the EPA to intervene.

"Our feeling is there has been a dead zone at the EPA almost as big as in the Gulf of Mexico," said Jeff Grimes, assistant director of the water resources program at the New Orleans-based Gulf Restoration Network. "They have the responsibility to act. The deadline came and went a long time ago and most of our states don't have standards ... and aren't enforcing any limits."

Grimes warned that without limits that are enforced, the Gulf of Mexico could face an ecological catastrophe.

"We're looking at a total ecological shift in the gulf as far as what lives there," Grimes said.

This year's situation is partly due to the Midwestern floods earlier in the summer, which carried massive amounts of top soil and fertilizer downstream.

Another factor is the ethanol industry, which depends on increased corn growth. Corn, in turn, requires more fertilizer than other crops. On top of stricter regulations, some environmentalists suggest that we look to other crops in our attempts to develop renewable fuel sources.

Image courtesy of Carleton College.

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