Hypoxia & the Dead Zone / Legal

Save the Sound Petitions EPA to Slash Nitrogen Pollution in Sound

This morning, Save the Sound, a bi-state program of Connecticut Fund for the Environment, filed a petition with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) requesting a new or revised legally enforceable plan to identify and reduce the biggest remaining sources of nitrogen pollution harming Long Island Sound.

The current nitrogen reduction plan for the Sound was developed in 2000. While advanced for its day, modeling at the time predicted, and monitoring now confirms, it did not set nitrogen input levels low enough to meet water quality standards for dissolved oxygen under the Clean Water Act. The petition asks the EPA to take the following actions:

  • Make a commitment with the five states that drain to Long Island Sound (Connecticut, New York, Massachusetts, Vermont, and New Hampshire) by June 2015 to develop an updated nitrogen Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) by June 15, 2016 that ensures Long Island Sound’s water quality will meet legal standards.
  • Establish an implementation and accountability program for those watershed states, also by June 15, 2016.
  • Immediately use its existing authorities to slash nitrogen from urban stormwater, broken and failing sewer pipes, septic systems and cesspools, and other local sources of nitrogen.

“The EPA must act now to stop the nitrogen pollution that is decimating the web of life in Long Island Sound,” said Curt Johnson, executive director of Save the Sound. “From low-oxygen dead zones that smother aquatic life, to the destruction of tidal marshes that protect us from flooding and harbor young fish, and toxic algae blooms in harbors on Long Island’s north shore, nitrogen pollution causes countless problems for the Sound’s fragile ecosystem.”

Nitrogen is the primary driver of hypoxia, a low-oxygen condition that endangers fish, lobsters, oysters, and the industries that rely on them. Concentrations of dissolved oxygen in the western Sound consistently fall to dangerous levels in summer, as do local oxygen levels in many bays and harbors around the Sound.

“Nitrogen pollution in Long Island Sound is a problem caused by humans, and it’s up to humans to fix it,” said Johan Varekamp, Ph. D., Harold T. Stearns Professor of Earth Science at Wesleyan University and board chair of CFE/Save the Sound. “Before the Industrial Revolution, Long Island Sound and its aquatic inhabitants enjoyed clean and healthy waters year-round. Now, like many estuaries across the world, the Sound faces low oxygen levels each summer, depriving organisms of safe habitats and fishermen of their livelihoods. This is a regional problem, and it can be fixed with a holistic approach to reducing nitrogen inputs from all sources in the Sound’s watershed.”

Long Island Sound’s current TMDL for nitrogen—a calculation of the maximum amount of a specific pollutant that a single waterbody can receive and still meet federal water quality standards—requires that Connecticut’s and New York’s sewage treatment plants reduce nitrogen output by 58.5 percent by 2014. These reductions alone, however, are insufficient to meet legally-mandated water quality standards. Additional measures are needed to cut nitrogen from other sources.

EPA should meaningfully include Massachusetts, Vermont, and New Hampshire in the TMDL process this time around, and mandate cost-effective nitrogen reductions from sources that discharge significant nitrogen into tributaries that reach Long Island Sound. At the local level, repairing broken sewer pipes, septic systems, and cesspools will cut nitrogen pollution as well as eliminate bacteria-laden sewage leaks that threaten human health.

Equally critical is curbing stormwater and fertilizer runoff from the Sound’s 16,000-square-mile watershed.

“The Connecticut River watershed provides 70 percent of the freshwater to Long Island Sound and so plays an important part in our efforts to make the Sound healthy again,” said Andrew Fisk, executive director of the Connecticut River Watershed Council and a co-signer on the petition. “There has been a terrific amount of work done by towns, cities, and states in Connecticut and New York toward the public’s goals for its water, but the existing TMDL does not contain the data and the science to determine what we do next. This is particularly true about the upstream states (Massachusetts, Vermont, and New Hampshire). Old data, old models, and old assumptions mean we aren’t plotting the best course forward and spending the public’s money effectively and equitably.”

Other signatories of CFE/Save the Sound’s petition include Citizens Campaign for the Environment, Connecticut River Watershed Council, Environment Connecticut, Environmental and Natural Resources Law Clinic, Friends of the Bay, Rivers Alliance of Connecticut, and Soundkeeper.

“Fifteen years ago, leaders at EPA and in Connecticut and New York recognized that sewage plant upgrades alone would not be enough to restore the Sound’s ecosystem,” said Roger Reynolds, legal director at CFE/Save the Sound. “It’s time to update the nitrogen plan for Long Island Sound to comport with the Clean Water Act and the best science, technology, and public policy available today. We can have a clean and healthy Long Island Sound in our lifetimes, but we need to act now.”

###

In addition to CFE/Save the Sound, the following organizations signed in support of this Petition and Request:

All are available for comment.

12 thoughts on “Save the Sound Petitions EPA to Slash Nitrogen Pollution in Sound

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