Saving the Gulf of Mexico: Somebody’s got to do it

Sometimes, the environmental issues surrounding the Gulf of Mexico feel a little like that old board game, Clue — the one with Col. Mustard in the kitchen with his lead pipe. Who is killing the Gulf this time? Is it BP, off Louisiana, with the crude oil? Or is the farmer, up the Mississippi River, with his fertilizer? The only thing we know is that life has gotten a lot harder in recent years for those thousands of hearty souls who try to make a living off the world’s best tasting seafood — the daily catch and the shellfish that have been harvested from the waters of the Gulf.

In the three years that I’ve been writing this blog, I’ve published reports from shrimpers who’ve seen their hauls shrink, and from oystermen complaining of barren shellfish beds. In many cases, they blame the ecological carnage that was wreaked upon the Gulf by 5 million barrels of BP’s spilled oil and by 1.8 million gallons of toxic dispersant that made matters worse. But these new woes also compounded a pre-existing problem of huge “dead zones” in the Gulf — a problem that is both caused and exacerbated by nutrients and other pollution that arrives largely from the Mississippi River, from farms and factories hundreds of miles away.

The Obama administration — which promised a fresh approach to environmental  protection to undo the pro-business excesses of eight years of Republican rule — has been shockingly quiet about these existential threats to the Gulf. Instead, it’s once again taken activists to force their hand:

The federal district court for the Eastern District of Louisiana late Friday afternoon handed a victory to NRDC and its coalition partners in our challenge to EPA’s refusal to address the pollution-fueled “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico.  The court agreed with us that EPA’s response to our plea for federal intervention in this ecological crisis was a squishy non-answer rather than the clear yes or no that the Clean Water Act requires.  The court gave EPA 180 days to respond to the question we asked in our petition – which is whether EPA needs to step in and put limits on the algae-fueling pollution that is causing the dead zone and choking waterways around the nation with green sludge.

In the simplest terms, the court ordered EPA to remove its head from the sand and make a decision whether to be part of the solution or part of the problem.  It’s a short and satisfying answer to a long and decidedly unsatisfying history of dithering inaction by EPA.  As described in earlier posts, our nation’s waters have become increasingly polluted by nitrogen and phosphorus – which are great fertilizers, but when you dump fertilizer into the water it fuels the growth of algae, which in turn chokes out other aquatic life.   One of the most devastating consequences of this pollution has been the emergence of the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico – an area the size of Connecticut where algal growth has driven levels of oxygen so low that virtually nothing can live there.

The NRDC notes that the EPA has acknowledged in the past that nutrient pollution is a federal problem — that the states lack both the wherewithal and the political will to regulate their own runoff. Which makes the feds’ failure to take aggressive action all the more frustrating. The environmental group speculates in its release that the EPA may have been scared off by the strong resistance that the agency received for nitrogen and phosphate emission limits that it had previously proposed in Florida. That’s a lame excuse — the Gulf needs fighters more than ever.

NOLA.com, in its write-up on the ruling, called the judge’s decision a “half a loaf” for the environmental movement, because the deadline for the EPA to take action does not place any requirements on what it must decide to do. We’ll see. With environmental problems such as fracking waste disposal, the Keystone XL pipeline and greenhouse gas emissions festering from coast to coast, the Obama administration has three years to finally grow a spine. I cannot think of a more important place to begin that process than the Gulf of Mexico.

To read the Natural Resources Defense Council on yesterday’s court ruling, please check out: http://switchboard.nrdc.org/blogs/aalexander/nrdc_wins_gulf_dead_zone_lawsu.html

More on the judge’s ruling from NOLA.com: http://www.nola.com/environment/index.ssf/2013/09/federal_judge_orders_epa_to_de.html#incart_river

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