September 11, 2000
Mississippi River/Gulf of Mexico Action Plan (4503F)
c/o U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
1200 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20460
Dear Task Force Members:
First of all, thank you for your hard work on the very illusive issue of Gulf hypoxia and thank you for giving us the opportunity to comment on your proposed plan of action. We at the Metropolitan St. Louis Sewer District understand quite well the complexity of identifying and then developing plausible solutions to pollution problems and the commitment required of individuals assigned to develop those solutions.
We understand the concern of the Gulf fishing industry for encountering environmental conditions beyond their control which could adversely impact their livelihood and quality of life. Our review and interpretation of available data suggests that any perceived impact on fisheries catch cannot at this time be statistically attributable to hypoxia. However, a more scientific analysis of the contributing factors could validate the significance of hypoxia to their industry.
There appears to be substantial information to support the contention that observed hypoxia is primarily due to increased nitrate nitrogen originating mainly from nonpoint sources in the Mississippi -Atchafalaya River Basin (MARB). It has been stated in a publication dated May, 2000 from the National Science and Technology Council (NSTC), that "about 90 percent of the nitrate load to the Gulf comes from nonpoint sources." And, "the principal sources of nitrate in the MARB are river basins that drain agricultural land in southern Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana and Ohio."
It has been stated in the NSTC publication that nitrogen loads from municipalities "are not the major contributor to the total nitrogen load from the Basin." And, "nitrate concentrations in urban nonpoint sources are generally not high...". It has also been stated that "analyses suggest that changes in agricultural practices to achieve modest levels of nutrient reduction can provide the least-cost option to society overall while maintaining high levels of production and realizing relatively minor impacts on net farm income sector-wide."
Considering the above NSTC published statements, we are concerned that your Task Force has recommended in the draft Action Plan for Reducing, Mitigating, and Controlling Hypoxia in the Northern Gulf of Mexico that there be a "continued pursuit of both incentive-based, voluntary efforts for nonpoint sources and regulatory controls for point sources." Apparently, point sources are contributing only about 10% of the nitrogen load in the MARB. Point sources regulated under the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) Permit program have spent billions of dollars to build, install and operate Best Available Treatment Technology in order to comply with NPDES requirements. The advances in pollution control by point sources have been mandated by federal laws and regulations. Had the NPDES Program been voluntary, we as a nation would not have realized the gains in water quality we are now enjoying. The same can be said in a different way for controlling nitrogen contributions to the Gulf from agricultural activities. If the required reductions from the major source of nitrogen (agricultural nonpoint sources) in the MARB are voluntary, a measurable and sustainable reduction of hypoxia in the Gulf is unlikely. It would be extremely unfair to mandate nitrogen removal from point sources while voluntary incentive programs are being promoted for nonpoint source removal of the same pollutant.
It has been stated in the NSTC publication that "significant efforts to reduce nutrient flux to surface waters are already underway" and "current activities may be having effects that have not yet been documented." Also, "the consequences of hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico are not fully known." Based on these statements it would appear that more effort on problem definition is necessary before optimum solutions can be formulated and implemented.
To develop strategies for nutrient reduction by Fall, 2001 (short term action #2) without adequate problem definition seems illogical. When it is recognized that point sources contribute less than 10% of nutrients to the Gulf, to expend resources to identify point source dischargers with significant discharges of nutrients by Fall, 2001 would not be cost effective.
Short term action items #6 (promote funding for necessary research and modeling efforts to reduce uncertainties regarding sources) and #7 (expand the long-term monitoring program for the hypoxic zone) should be given precedence because they support problem definition and would measure impacts of "significant efforts to reduce nutrient flux...already underway," in addition to locating sectors and sources contributing significant quantities of nutrients.
Increasing assistance to landowners to restore, enhance, or create wetlands and vegetative or forested buffers along rivers and streams (short term action #4) should continue because of other benefits to society such as stated in the NSTC publication, " adding to the nation's disappearing wetland habitate, improving river ecosystems, enhancing terrestrial wildlife in river corridors, and mitigating the effects of floods." Increasing assistance to agricultural producers, landowners, and businesses to promote the use of Besst Management Practices (short term action #5) should also continue to improve water quality. Similar practices are required under Phases I & II Stormwater Regulations to control soil erosion from land disturbance construction activities.
We support the implementation of an adaptive management approach to the perceived hypoxia problem. The proposed short term actions need to be modified to provide for a "comprehensive, carefully targeted program of monitoring, modeling, and research to facilitate continual improvement in scientific knowledge and gradual adaptation of management approaches," as suggested in the NSTC publication so often quoted in this response to your Action Plan. Priorities need to be established for reducing the numerous uncertainties associated with the hypoxia phenomenon before regulatory or voluntary programs are developed and sectors/sources targeted for onerous legal obligations.
Your Action Plan needs to be modified to focus on the real causes, not just the symptoms of the hypoxia problem. You should define your major objectives and determine the major factors that relate to the achievement of those objectives. This process is supported by gathering data and critically evaluating the data. The data collected will lead you into developing appropriate alternatives to achieve your established objectives. The various alternatives for controlling Gulf hypoxia must be evaluated to determine their cost/benefit impacts on various sectors of our society. The action plan and appropriate decisions can only be made and implemented based on an equitable evaluation of potential alternatives. It appears to us that some of these basic decision-making steps have not been included or incorporated sequentially in your Action Plan.
You have given undue emphasis to further regulation of point sources even though point sources have been identified as minor sources of nitrogen in the MARB. We recommend greater emphasis be given to controlling nitrogen form major sources, i.e. nonpoint agricultural sources. As stated in the NSTC publication, "the greatest estimated potential to reduce nitrogen losses from agriculture to streams and rivers are: improved nitrogen management techniques and alternative cropping systems."
We trust our comments are taken in the constructive spirit with which they are given. Please realize that our publicly owned treatment works (POTWs) and industrial direct dischargers have been regulated for many years and have realized substantial pollution control costs each year since the early 1970's. To require more advanced treatment such as nitrification and denitrification for minor point sources of nitrogen in the MARB will be very expensive both in initial capital expenditure and annual operational expense. We believe a true analysis of these costs as related to the anticipated benefits would show scarce resources would be better spent if directed toward controlling major nonpoint sources of nitrate after the causes and consequences of Gulf hypoxia are fully understood.
Metropolitan St. Louis Sewer District
Bernard A. Rains, P.E., Director
Office of Environmental Compliance