In the non-fiction best-seller (and Hollywood film) A Civil Action a New England community confronts the very serious consequences that followed when a manufacturing company’s chemical waste contaminated the local water supply. While chemical wastes can continue to present health and environmental concerns, an increasing concern today focuses on a different type of contamination – “nutrient pollution,” which is affecting many of the nation’s waterways. The “civil war” metaphor referenced above reflects the fact that actions to address nutrient pollution can find state and local government entities squaring-off against each other. A recent example is in Iowa, where the City of Des Moines has issued formal notice that it intends to file a suit to enjoin nutrient pollution from neighboring communities.
Background. “Nutrient pollution” may sound like an oxymoron since plants and animals require nutrients as part of their food supply. But too much of a good thing can be bad, which in this case means the nutrients nitrogen and phosphorus. As the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency explains, excessive amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus in rivers, lakes, etc., cause significant increases in algae (“algal blooms”) that deplete the oxygen aquatic life requires. The algae also produce toxins and bacteria that can cause illness for humans through consumption of contaminated fish, shellfish or drinking water. In fact, for several days last summer Toledo, Ohio imposed water usage restrictions, which included a ban on all potable uses, due to nutrient pollution in the form of toxic algae in Lake Erie. In addition, nitrates (a form of nitrogen) in surface waters and groundwater pose a significant health concern because nitrates can lead to serious illness in adults and can be fatal for infants and small children. http://www2.epa.gov/nutrientpollution. Nutrient pollution from the Mississippi River basin (which drains all or portions of 31 states) is also responsible for the more than 5,000 square-mile “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico where hypoxia (oxygen deficiency) has excluded many forms of aquatic life. Given these facts, EPA’s admonition is not surprising: “Nitrogen and phosphorus pollution has the potential to become one of the costliest and the most challenging environmental problems we face.” http://www2.epa.gov/sites/production/files/documents/memo_nitrogen_-framework.pdf.
Nutrient pollution results from several factors. That includes urban stormwater runoff, residential sources (e.g., lawn fertilizers, yard and pet waste, certain soaps and detergents), fossil fuel use (increased air emissions of nitrogen) and sanitary wastes (from septic systems and sewage treatment). But while those sources can contribute to nutrient pollution, the primary source, as noted by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, is agriculture, including fertilizers and animal waste. See generally http://oceanservice.noaa.gov/-products/hypox_t3final.pdf. Paradoxically, however, when Congress enacted the Clean Water Act (CWA) in 1972 (the CWA is the primary federal law for controlling water pollution), it chose to exempt two agricultural categories, agricultural stormwater and return flows from irrigation. Absent the exemptions, those sources could be required to have permits under the Clean Water Act’s National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) program. Although the CWA does not require states to mirror the federal exemptions for agriculture, as a general rule states choose not to be more stringent than the CWA (to do otherwise would be akin to exporting jobs and tax revenue to more lenient states, a non-starter for state policymakers). That is the case with nutrient pollution from agriculture – state regulation is voluntary and generally regarded as inadequate. See https://www.nacwa.org/images/stories-/public/2012-03-06wp.pdf at 15 (voluntary control measures “have been unable to deliver reliable and sustained nutrient loading reductions from the agriculture sector”); see also http://www.gao.gov/assets/660/659496.pdf at 60-61 (water quality improvement is restricted nationally due to inadequate regulatory authority over non-point source pollution, which includes agriculture).
Emerging Battleground. Given the increasing concerns it presents, nutrient pollution has become a catalyst for testing the scope of the CWA’s agricultural exemptions. A recent example is the previously referenced pre-litigation notice the City of Des Moines issued to neighboring counties and their drainage districts last month (although CWA enforcement is primarily a state and federal government responsibility, individuals, organizations and local governments can also file enforcement actions – “citizen suits” – for which a 60-day notice of intent to sue is required). Des Moines’ would-be suit (which could be filed shortly) concerns groundwater the drainage districts remove artificially (using drainage tiles and other conveyances) from moisture laden agricultural lands and then discharge to local rivers. The result is a lower water table, which benefits agriculture through reduced interference with root growth and enhanced crop development. But there’s also a downside: discharging the groundwater to nearby rivers significantly increases the nitrate concentration in the rivers, which are the primary local water supply. That, in turn, requires Des Moines to augment its water treatment system – at considerable cost – to reduce nitrates to meet the federal Safe Drinking Water Act limit. Des Moines’ notice of intent concludes that the drainage districts’ discharges are not covered by the CWA’s agricultural exemptions because they are not stormwater or associated with irrigation, and as consequence are unpermitted discharges in violation of the CWA. There is very little precedent interpreting the CWA’s agricultural exemptions, and it does not appear to address facts such as those pertinent to Des Moines.
It is not yet known whether Des Moines will proceed with litigation. Although extension of the NPDES permit program to a presumably vast number of agricultural sources could be daunting, that concern must be juxtaposed with the increasing national focus on the adverse impact of nutrient pollution from agricultural sources. These concerns far transcend Des Moines’ individual circumstances and implicate a number of additional states, broad agricultural interests and a considerable number of municipalities as well. Developments in this matter will be very useful to monitor.