Commentary: Are you killing the Gulf of Mexico?

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Nitrogen and phosphorus pollution from water runoff from farm fields and other sources causes human health effects, kills dogs, and has even caused human death in Wisconsin. Nutrient pollution produces toxic substances called cyanobacterial toxins (toxic blue-green algae) which cause respiratory distress and neurological problems in people and pets swimming in contaminated water.

These statements come from an environmentalist petition filed at EPA in 2008.

Environmental groups from Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Missouri and Louisiana want to force the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to control the discharges of phosphorus and nitrogen from your farm and other sources. 

We use nutrients to grow corn, soybeans and other crops. The environmentalists claim with some support that the excess levels of nitrogen and phosphorus from our farms "…are responsible for impairing the Gulf of Mexico and a huge list of waters in nearly every state."

The petition claims water runoff of nitrogen and phosphorus "is causing a huge dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico that threatens numerous human and ecological communities as well as the basic health of the Gulf,..."  It asserts the Gulf's dead zone is the "largest in North America and the second largest in the world out of 169 hypoxic dead zones in the world."

Nutrient pollution impairs fresh-water systems in the Mississippi River basin and watersheds across the country. The environmentalists' petition says EPA recognizes "…the massive problems caused by nitrogen and phosphorus pollution." It also claims the U.S. Geological Survey has a model that ranks the 31 states contributing nutrients that drain into the Mississippi River Basin.

According to the model, Illinois contributes 16.8 percent of the total nitrogen going into the Gulf of Mexico. For phosphorus, Illinois contributes 12.9 percent, which makes the state the Number 1 contributor to the dead zone. Iowa is ranked second; Indiana is third and Missouri is fourth for phosphorus.

Overall, the petition is an indictment of EPA's lack of regulation of nitrogen and phosphorus pollution. I have seen nothing to date that defends agriculture and the steps producers are taking on tillage practices and animal nutrient waste management to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus pollution.

The Department of Justice's and EPA's briefs I have reviewed agree with all of the charges made by the environmental groups.

High toxicity
The 2008 petition charges that high concentrations of nutrients being discharged cause high toxicity of nitrates in drinking water. An example cited is the cyanobacteria, a specie capable of producing toxins. According to the environmental groups, the toxin can cause respiratory distress and neurological problems in people and pets. The petition claims eight dog deaths have been caused by the toxins. 

The petition even claims the death of a teenage boy may have been caused by toxins from nutrients.

The environmental petition pulls no punches and backs its arguments with data from numerous studies, World Health Organization, and studies from around the world.

Legal arguments from EPA come across as pathetically weak in light of the charges made against nutrient runoff allegedly from agriculture

Tillage agriculture is not without its merits, but these merits are certainly not being told to the courts. The University of Illinois and Cornell University have engaged in a major study of the Mississippi River basin with support from the National Science Foundation (NSF). Even though the university study looks at fertilizer inputs, it also examines atmospheric deposition of nutrients, the number of people in the basin and livestock to calculate nitrogen inputs and outputs for all 153 watersheds in the Mississippi River basin.

The study does not exonerate agriculture, but it certainly explains the facts, which to date I have not seen in any legal brief filed with any court.

The University of Illinois lead researcher has said, "Farmers are not to blame" for the huge increase in the seasonal hypoxia dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. "They [farmers] are using the same amount of nitrogen as they were 30 years ago and getting much higher corn yields, but we have created a very leaky agricultural system," he adds. "A lot of people just want to blame fertilizer, but it's not that simple."

Agriculture's representatives had better start telling the complete story on nutrients to the courts of this country. Agriculture loses when the environmental groups and EPA control the narrative, and we are losing!

Gary H. Baise is a principal at OFW Law (Olsson Frank Weeda Terman Matz P.C.). This article first appeared in Farm Futures magazine. The opinions presented here are expressly those of the author. For more information, go to 

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