Making Illinoise Over Water Pollution

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Three leading environmental groups say they’re hauling Chicago’s sewer system and the Environmental Protection Agency into court over the pollution that pours out of the city, down the Mississippi and eventually to the Gulf of Mexico, helping to grow the perennial “Dead Zone.”

The Prairie Rivers Network, Natural Resources Defense Council and Sierra Club sent word last week (March 1) that they intend to file suit against the EPA, the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Chicago and the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency over their shared failure to correct the problem over many decades.

In a press release issued by Prairie Rivers, the groups said:

Water pollution illegally dumped from the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District’s (MWRD’s) three sewage treatment plants and combined sewer overflow pipes has created a plume of harmful impacts stretching from Chicago all the way to the Gulf of Mexico… Wastewater discharged by MWRD exceeds federal water pollution limits and violates state-issued permits. The problem is so severe that it wipes out oxygen in the water after big rains and causes harmful, stinking mats of algae to form downstream of the MWRD plants.

Good for them. It is important for green groups to hold cities accountable for their failure to comply with the Clean Water Act. But you can only sue somebody who is legally responsible for cleaning up their pollution. It’s important to remember what is by far the biggest hurdle to cleaning up the waters of the Mississippi Basin and restoring the health of the Gulf.

Hint: It’s not Chicago. It’s the non-point source pollution, mostly from agriculture, that is subject to no regulation at all under the Clean Water Act.

When a pipe – or an entire city sewer system – spews toxic chemicals or sewage into a water body, that’s a specific “point source,” and the law empowers regulators to move in and punish violators. That is, as long as the pollution doesn’t come from a farm field. That’s called “non-point source pollution” – the nitrates and phosphates from fertilizers and manures slathered on farm fields to squeeze out every possible bushel – and under the law, it’s unregulated.

If you wanted to sue an agency for not regulating that pollution, you couldn’t. In fact, when the EPA put together a plan to address non-point source pollution in Chesapeake Bay, and when Iowa tried to protect a handful of pristine trout streams in Iowa, it was the EPA that was hit with lawsuits, not the polluters. Both have been taken to court by the Farm Bureau, one of agriculture’s lobbying giants, for having the audacity to fight for clean water.

Agribusiness lobbyists are more than happy to keep federal farm subsidy dollars flowing to the largest and wealthiest growers of corn and soybeans, but when the government tries to protect water from agricultural pollution, they say that’s “government overreach.”

In contrast, EPA has actually worked to strengthen regulations on urban pollution. The suit filed last week primarily focuses on Chicago’s failure to deal with storm water overflows and meet dissolved oxygen standards, as it had previously agreed to do. Urban dwellers will legitimately be called upon to pick up the tab for protecting water quality. But these are the same taxpayers who are picking up the tab for farm subsidies. The Farm Bureau and its allies in the agricultural subsidy lobby hit EPA with daily broadsides about EPA ‘s overreach whenever the agency suggests that agriculture should pick up its fair share in reducing water pollution.

So what is agriculture’s fair share compared to the pollution flowing into the Mississippi River generated by Chicago? Even Albert Ettinger, the lead attorney in the impending Chicago suit, agrees that it’s no contest:

"There is no single farm business that is as big a contributor as the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago, but collectively, farm businesses are responsible for the overwhelming bulk of nitrogen and phosphorus pollution in the Mississippi watershed. Chicago is in the ballpark of 0.5% of the total amount of nitrogen and phosphorus polluting the Gulf of Mexico, while ag is 70% or more. And no one who has studied the data seriously contests that."

Some of the most successful efforts to mitigate agricultural pollution flowing to the Gulf of Mexico are proven conservation programs, but sadly, they are now on the budgetary chopping block. In Illinois, many are worried that budget constraints will force lawmakers to slash funding for these critical programs, as reported in a Feb. 26 story in the Springfield, Ill. State Journal Register:

Conservation programs are in the crosshairs this year as lawmakers slash budgets at all levels of government. Illinois has been struggling with a deficit that may be as great as $15 billion, and the federal government is even worse off with trillions of dollars in outstanding debt. It’s not a matter of if programs will be cut; it’s how much.

Farmers actually like these programs, which pay them to take measures that protect water quality and soil. Not long ago, Illinois farmers surveyed by the Illinois Corn Growers Association were asked, “Which one area do you feel the taxpayer is receiving their biggest “bang for their buck?” Conservation payments and programs came in a close second to agriculture research.

Asking agriculture to do its fair share is not over reach. It's common sense.


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