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Missouri environmental advocates sue EPA over clean water rules

A view of a lake from the Katy Trail in St. Charles.
Durrie Bouscaren | St. Louis Public Radio
A view of a lake from the Katy Trail in St. Charles.

A Missouri environmental group is suing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in an effort to try to force the state to set stricter water pollution standards.

In the lawsuit filed Wednesday, the Missouri Coalition for the Environment Foundation claims the EPA and its administrator, Gina McCarthy, failed to regulate nitrogen and phosphorus levels in Missouri's lakes, as required under the federal Clean Water Act.

The group said those nutrients become some of the biggest U.S. water pollutants at excessive levels and can cause widespread fish kills, algae blooms and "dead zones" of oxygen depletion, such as the Gulf of Mexico's water off the coasts of Louisiana and Texas.

EPA had previously rejected proposed standards for most lakes and reservoirs set by the state, but Missouri never submitted new rules. The environmental group said the EPA should have forced state regulators to do so.

Regional EPA spokesman, Chris Whitley said the agency has no comment, citing the pending litigation.

Our original story, Nov. 11, 2015 - As soon as January, environmentalists plan to file suit in an effort to force Missouri to establish stricter regulations over water pollution.

Four years ago, the EPA rejected part of a state regulatory proposal that established standards for the nitrogen and phosphorus levels in most lakes and reservoirs, but Missouri never followed up with new rules. Now, the Missouri Coalition for the Environment says it’s been too long. States are supposed to submit new criteria within 90 days of disapproval. 

The Coalition filed a Notice of Intent to the EPA on November 6, and can file suit after 60 days.

“There are a lot of sectors of Missouri that do not want to be regulated, and they’re very powerful and have a lot of pull with the state regulators,” said the Coalition’s attorney Liz Hubertz, who comes from Washington University’s environmental law clinic.

The Coalition will contend that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency violated the Clean Water Act because it did not force Missouri regulators to establish new nutrient limits within a reasonable time frame, Hubertz said. 

Nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus tend to run off of farm fields, pavement and out of septic systems. In high concentrations, they pollute waterways and contribute to the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. The Missouri Department of Natural Resources has drawn up a number of draft recommendations and solicited comments, including a proposal posted online in September. But so far, nothing has moved forward.  

Along with other agriculture interests, the Missouri Farm Bureau outlined a set of concerns over the proposal, which included numerical limits for the level of nutrients that can be measured in a body of water. But that doesn’t take into account weather fluctuations or background levels of nutrients for different soil types, said Leslie Holloway, director of regulatory affairs for the Farm Bureau.

“We think it’s important to try the voluntary route before you go the mandatory route,” said Holloway, referring to sustainable farming practices that are encouraged under Missouri’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy. “People have to realize government regulations are costly. If you can get people to do the right thing before making it into a mandate it’s much better.”

But to environmentalist advocates, initiatives like that hardly have enough teeth to protect the state’s waterways.

“In fairness to Missouri they have done other things, including protecting more of their waters," said Hubertz, the attorney. "But this is something that’s been hanging out there for a while that they really should have gotten around to by now.”

The EPA and the state DNR did not return requests for comment by the end of the day.

Follow Durrie on Twitter: @durrieB

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