American Forest & Paper Association
Mississippi River /Gulf of Mexico Action Plan (4503F)
c/o U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
1200 Pennsylvania Avenue N.W.
Washington, DC 20460
Re: Notice of Availability and Request for Comment on Draft Plan of Action for Reducing, Mitigating, and Controlling Hypoxia in the Northern Gulf of Mexico ("Plan"); 65 Federal Register 42690 (July 11, 2000)
To Whom it May Concern:
AF&PA appreciates this opportunity to comment on the Plan. AF&PA is the national trade association of the forest, paper and wood products industry. Our organization represents approximately 200 member companies and related trade associations which grow, harvest, and process wood and wood fiber, manufacture pulp, paper and paperboard from both virgin and recycled fiber, and produce solid wood products. AF&PA members own and operate facilities and own forest land in the Mississippi/Atchafalaya river basin that may be affected by regulatory and other actions taken pursuant to the Plan. Therefore, AF&PA has a direct interest in the Plan. Our comments are set forth below.
AF&PA generally supports the statement that "[T]he guiding principle of this plan is that in establishing priorities for watershed restoration, States, Tribes, and Federal Agencies within the Mississippi and Atchafalaya River Basin consider the potential for benefits to the Gulf of Mexico, direct current and increased resources to cost-effective, practical, actions that will reduce discharges and run-off of nutrients in the Mississippi and Atchafalaya River Basin, and give priority to watersheds delivering the most nitrogen to the Gulf as well as being likely to have local benefits." Page 42692. As acknowledged by the Plan, voluntary, incentive-based actions are an important basis for solving the hypoxia problem in the Gulf. Thus, the emphasis on "cost-effective, practical action" is critical and the priorities must be established with that in mind.
Similarly, out of the three potential "Coastal" Goals, AF&PA supports Goal 1.C, that is, "to pursue practical, cost-effective efforts by all states and tribes within the basin and all categories of sources to protect the ecological and fisheries resources of the northern Gulf of Mexico by reducing nutrient over-enrichment." Page 42691.
We note, however, that there is growing scientific agreement that there are three factors causing hypoxia in the Gulf: 1) excessive nutrients, primarily nitrogen; 2) physical changes in the basin, such as channelization and loss of natural wetlands and vegetation; and 3) stratification in the Gulf. Thus, while the Plan may have the appropriate focus on actions for nutrient reduction, it seems to have ignored the other causes of hypoxia in the Gulf.
The requirement that "practical, cost-effective efforts" be taken by government entities is particularly important when considering nutrient reductions from point source discharges. For example, the Plan requires permitting authorities to "identify point source dischargers with significant discharges of nutrients, and to undertake steps to reduce those loadings..." Page 42692. AF&PA questions the schedule for this and other short term goals (see below). More importantly, however, the Plan also acknowledges that there "are multiple sources of nitrogen contributing to nutrient over-enrichment in the Gulf..., including about 11 percent from municipal and industrial point sources...." Page 42695. Any nutrient loadings reductions sought by permitting agencies from point sources must carefully consider the cost-effectiveness of those reductions, since point sources are such a small source of nutrient over-enrichment in the Gulf. Permitting agencies also must recognize that a certain level of nutrient discharge is required for facilities, such as pulp and paper mills, that have their own wastewater treatment plants and commonly add nitrogen compounds to ensure the treatment plants are operating effectively.
Finally, there are scientifically complex questions regarding point source discharges and the hypoxia question. There are questions that have not been adequately addressed and which bear upon the defensibility of rapid action by the permitting authorities to identify significant point source dischargers and reduce their loadings. For example, it is our understanding that the extent to which nitrogen released upstream into a tributary of the Mississippi River actually participates in Gulf hypoxia is not known with certainty. Similarly, there are forms of nitrogen which are released from certain point sources which are not be capable of interacting with aqueous chemical and biological systems to yield low dissolved oxygen. These complexities must be accounted for in any actions seeking loadings reductions from point sources.
The schedule described in the Action Plan is very accelerated. By the Fall of this year, state and federal agencies are required to have sub-basin committees in place, agencies are to develop strategies for nutrient reduction, and, as discussed above, permitting authorities are to identify significant point source dischargers and seek loadings reductions. This is an inappropriately ambitious schedule for the following reasons. As stated in the Plan, the manner in which nutrients entering the Mississippi and Atchafalaya River Basin interact with chemical and biological processes to promote conditions of low dissolved oxygen in the Northern Gulf of Mexico is "complicated." Page 42691. Examples of just some aspects of complexity are discussed in the immediately preceding section. However, the Plan also indicates that by the Fall of 2001, the Task Force will "propose an integrated Gulf of Mexico Hypoxia Research Strategy to coordinate and promote funding for necessary research and modeling efforts to reduce ...[technical] uncertainties..." Page 42692. We question the advisability of a timetable which places the implementation of source reductions far ahead of the generation of research information which will determine if such reductions will achieve the desired outcomes, especially when those sources are acknowledged to be relatively minor contributors of over enrichment to the Gulf.
Thank you again for this opportunity to comment on the Plan. If you have any questions about our comments, I can be reached at (202) 463-2581.
Water Quality Programs
Regulatory Affairs Department