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OMAHA (DTN) -- A district court judge must review his decision requiring EPA to determine whether states in the Mississippi River basin will have to tighten water-quality nutrient standards.
A federal appeals court on Tuesday ordered the district court judge to review a case in which a number of environmental groups petitioned the EPA to set strict numeric standards in the basin to control nutrients runoff. The agency declined to make a call on the grounds that requiring a one-size-fits-all approach would be costly. EPA and farm groups argued that voluntary efforts already underway are the best way to reduce nutrients runoff in the nation's largest watershed.
The ruling is a win for farmers and state regulators in 31 states that make up the Mississippi River watershed. Had EPA been required to issue a determination, specific numeric standards for runoff may have been established through the watershed. If the appeals court decision holds, states may continue to support voluntary measures to reduce nutrient runoff.
The Natural Resources Defense Council said in a news release late Wednesday that the ruling "reinforced many arguments made by the Natural Resources Defense Council on behalf of the Mississippi River Collaborative aimed at breaking decades of inaction from the federal government" on pollution fueling the Gulf of Mexico 'Dead Zone.'
NRDC attorney Ann Alexander said in a news release the decision shows EPA's inaction deserves scrutiny.
"The ruling reinforced our long-standing contention that the EPA's decisions must be scrutinized in the light of day," she said. "They have hidden from the stubborn problem of Mississippi River pollution for decades, and the federal decision reinforces our argument that they cannot expect to hide from the court as well. This gives us a chance to further clarify arguments about how the Clean Water Act requires EPA to give the public straight answers on whether federal action is needed to address the problem, since state efforts to address this problem have been too weak or nonexistent to get the job done."
Iowa Agriculture Secretary Bill Northey, who is also co-chairman of the Mississippi River Gulf of Mexico Watershed Nutrients Task Force, said in a written statement to DTN that the court's ruling reinforces the work already well underway to reduce nutrients runoff.
"This decision helps support the EPA's view that the current state and regional activity is the most effective and practical means of addressing water quality concerns at this time," he said. "This decision also highlights the fact that the states have been quite active in efforts to reduce nitrogen and phosphorous levels. I truly believe that working together in a voluntary, science-based approach is the most effective way to improve water quality."
The groups sued EPA in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana, asking the court to force EPA to determine whether numeric standards should be required. District Judge Jay Zainey ruled in September 2013 that EPA had to explain to groups such as the Gulf Restoration Network why the agency ignored their request for five years and had refused to exert its authority under the Clean Water Act to require tougher actions by states.
In its ruling Tuesday, however, the three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit said EPA could not necessarily be compelled to make such a determination.