EPA effort to block Pebble Mine in Alaska hits judicial bump

A federal judge in Alaska has temporarily barred the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency from exercising a veto of a permit needed to build the largest open pit mine ever proposed in North America.

The decision by U.S. district judge Russel Holland came in a lawsuit that alleges EPA violated the Federal Advisory Committee Act by working with opponents of the copper mine project.

Holland did not release a written opinion. He instead issued a verbal temporary restraining order from the bench.

The lawsuit is part of an effort by Pebble Limited Partnership, the developer of the mine, to bypass EPA’s opposition to its project, which would take up more land in the rugged and fecund Bristol Bay region than the entirety of Manhattan and obliterate the world-class salmon fishery there.

EPA had announced last summer that it would use its authority under section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act to reject a permit that would allow PLP to deposit fill into the bay. The agency plans to finalize that decision early in 2015.

Wednesday’s order by Judge Holland does not indicate that the court agrees with the merits of PLP’s allegations against EPA.

Commentary: Washington Post article should encourage re-thinking of ways to prevent nutrient growth in nation’s waters

The Washington Post has published an insightful article discussing the huge increase in water pollution caused by livestock and poultry manure over the last few decades.

Yes, manure. About 2.7 trillion pounds of dung is generated by America’s farm animals every year. That’s about ten times the total amount of fecal material generated by all the humans in the country during a year.

The concentration of farming into gigantic, centralized operations has led to production of far more livestock and chicken dung than can easily or, in some cases, economically be used to fertilize crops. That waste is stored in piles or lagoons, from which it leaches into rivers and streams. According to a 2001 report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture that surplus accounts for 60 percent of all the nitrogen and 70 percent of all the phosphorus stored in the country’s agricultural manure.

That nitrogen and phosphorus causes algal blooms and eutrophication in lakes and streams and is largely responsible for the creation of “dead” zones in the Gulf of Mexico.

Despite changes to it in 2002 and 2005 intended to address the problem of stored animal waste, the Clean Water Act is not currently a reliable tool for preventing the toxic pollution that is often caused by these byproducts of modern large-scale agriculture.

It is fine, as far as it goes, to require those who operate “combined feeding operations” to obtain a National Pollution Discharge Elimination System permit under the Clean Water Act. The problem is that mandate is not enough to stop the continued concentration of livestock into living spaces that are too small. The solution must involve giving farmers and agriculture companies an incentive to “spread the animals out.” With less accumulation of manure in few places it will be more realistic to expect that the water pollution impacts of animal waste can be effectively addressed.

Of course, agricultural manure production on an industrial scale does not only affect water quality. It also contributes significantly to air pollution and global warming, as stored waste emits a variety of gases. They include methane, hydrogen sulfide, ammonia and, of course, carbon dioxide.

Therefore, this is an issue that must also be addressed in any effective greenhouse gas reduction strategy.

The public health dictates more attention to the problem, too. Livestock and poultry waste often contains zoonotic pathogens that are dangerous to humans, as well as pharmaceutical compounds such as hormones and antibiotics.

Unfortunately, there does not appear to be much focus on this problem in Congress. And EPA has not been enthusiastic even about making sure the public is aware of it. In 2008 the agency exempted animal waste air pollution discharges from reporting obligations under two federal environmental laws.

Perhaps, since “change” is a theme that apparently continues to resonate with the American public, it’s time for leaders in Washington, D.C. to think hard about how to counteract this growing and serious environmental and public health threat.

China releases new water pollution data; annual loads to waterways are four times safe limits

China has released a new report detailing the amount of pollution discharged to its waters, and the results indicate that the country is overwhelming its rivers, lakes and streams with toxins.

According to a report published in today’s New York Times, the first-ever Chinese national pollution census shows that, in 2007, the world’s most populated country emitted more than 30 million tons of organic pollutants into its waters.

The Times article, quoting a Chinese environmental group leader, says that the annual limit for the country’s lakes, rivers and streams is about 7.4 million tons of the organic pollutants that measure chemical oxygen demand.

Nearly half of the pollutants in China’s freshwater chemical oxygen demand originate in agricultural operations, the report says.

The new report by the Chinese government also says that water pollution from soot and ammonia nitrogen have increased from previous, less-detailed examinations of the nation’s pollution problem and that heavy metal contamination of water, including from mercury and lead, persists.

The World Health Organization estimates that almost 100,000 people in China die each year from water pollution-related causes and that 75 percent of disease in the country results from water quality problems.

A 2007 investigative report by the New York Times indicated that about 500 million Chinese lack access to safe drinking water.

Bush Seeks to Legalize Mountaintop Stripping

The Bush Adminisration’s Environmental Protection Agency has approved a proposed rule that would allow the practice of stripping off mountain tops to find coal, and then dumping the debris into streams, to resume, according to a report in the McClatchy Newspapers.

A 1983 regulation prohibits the dumping of such mining debris, which often results from a common mining practice in the coal regions of Appalachia. The government in recent years has declined to enforce this rule.

Government figures show that about 535 miles of streams were buried or diverted between 2001 and 2005, about half of them in Appalachia.

The Department of Interior intends to finalize the rule this month, according to a report in the McLatchy Newspapers, and it will go into effect before President-elect Barack Obama takes office.

The Obama-Biden transition office has not commented on its plans for seeking the reversal of this and other recent changes to federal regulations.