Area west of Mississippi River added to impaired waters list

The nation’s top environmental agency has placed the coastline of Louisiana west of the Mississippi River on the list of impaired waterways in Louisiana in what some consider a symbolic move to bring attention to the dead zone problem in the Gulf of Mexico.

The area, covering western Terrebonne Parish to the Mississippi River, was added to the state’s list of impaired waterways, according to a July 18 letter from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The state, however, had recommended that the area not be included in the list.

Normally, when an area is included on the impaired waters list, the state creates a plan to try to reverse the problems, such as monitoring and testing in order to determine the maximum amount of pollution a body of water can take and still meet federal water quality standards.

However, Louisiana contributes very little to the nutrients that flow into the Mississippi River that cause the dead zone.

“We don’t think that’s going to solve the issue here,” Sam Phillips, assistant secretary of the state Department of Environmental Quality, said about setting a maximum pollution limit for this area of coastline.

EPA can’t force DEQ to create the pollution limits, but the federal agency can create its own.

Environmental groups sued the EPA last year to urge federal action on the dead zone of low oxygen that forms in the Gulf every summer. A common complaint from environmental groups is that DEQ has recommended that these areas not be included on the impaired waterways list.

On Tuesday, they commended EPA for again including these coastal areas anyway.

“We’re really applauding EPA for once again insisting DEQ recognize these waterways are impaired,” said Marylee Orr, executive director of the Louisiana Environmental Action Network. When asked about the state’s position that there’s very little Louisiana can do to reduce nutrient input, Orr said the designation still serves a purpose.

“You’ve got to start somewhere,” she said. Some upriver states have claimed Louisiana says there is no problem, so those states don’t feel they need to deal with the issues of nutrients getting to the Gulf of Mexico either, she said.

“Maybe it (the inclusion on the impaired waters list) will send a message up the river,” Orr said. “It is the LDEQ’s duty to protect these water bodies and set limits.”

LEAN and Gulf Restoration Network, both represented by Tulane Environmental Law Clinic, submitted multiple comments to EPA urging the agency to again include the coastal areas on the list.

This low-oxygen dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico grows to its yearly worst during the summer and is caused by nutrients such as fertilizer that flow down the Mississippi River and help feed small organisms. When these organisms die, they use up oxygen as they decompose.

Without storms or windy weather to help mix oxygen-carrying water with low-oxygen water, the oxygen can get low enough that the water can no longer sustain marine life.

On Monday, results from this summer’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration-funded research cruise found a low-oxygen area that measures 5,840 square miles off the coast of Louisiana.

DEQ has maintained that there are a number of reasons why the state shouldn’t list the section of the coast from Terrebonne to the Mississippi River as impaired for low oxygen.

DEQ says there isn’t enough information to list the coastal areas because there is only information from summer research cruises. In addition, very little of the dead zone of low oxygen actually goes into the three-mile area offshore under the state’s jurisdiction, and a solution to the dead zone problem is going to take a multi-state effort.