EPA Decision Will Effect the Future of Gulf of Mexico

By Brent Fewell

For water junkies like me, or those who care about environmental restoration, you might be interested in this significant decision out of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana that compels the U.S. EPA to make a “necessity determination” on whether it needs to adopt numeric nutrient criteria to achieve restoration of the Gulf of Mexico.  As I’ve blogged previously, the Gulf suffers from a large “dead zone” caused by too much nutrients from, among other sources, agricultural runoff and sewage treatment plants discharging into the Mississippi River and its tributaries.  These extra nutrients reduce the oxygen available to crabs, fish and other aquatic critters in the Gulf.  The Mississippi drains all or parts of 31 states and stretches even up into Canada.  So this is one of those wicked problems that requires significant time and resources to fix.

The Gulf Restoration Network petitioned EPA in 2008, asking the Agency to adopt “numeric” criteria in lieu of less stringent “narrative” criteria.  EPA denied the petition in 2011, arguing that it would prefer to works with states using different approaches.  EPA has long desired to move toward numerics and many state water agencies have generally been in agreement.  But the politics and economics of this issue have resulted in states aggressively pushing back against EPA.

The decision, rendered by a George W. Bush appointee, now forces the EPA to affirmatively say “yes” or “no” on whether numerics are needed.  Either way, it will be a game changer.  If the Agency says “yes”, the political fallout from the states, local communities, and agriculture will be palpable.  If it says “no”, the Agency will seriously undermine a decade-long effort to move the states toward a more powerful tool to effect water quality improvements.

EPA has 180 days to decide what it is going to do and respond.  Big case and big stakes at play.