New lawsuit seeks to protect Cape Cod waters from nitrogen pollution

20 09 2011

Excess nitrogen has caused massive blooms of marine algae along Cape Cod.

Today’s blog fodder comes from a very inside source–my house. Your blogger’s husband is an attorney at Conservation Law Foundation in New Hampshire. Some of his southern New England compatriots in CLF, along with The Buzzard’s Bay Coalition, have just filed a lawsuit citing the EPA for failure to address the growing, and potentially catastrophic problem of excess nitrogen flowing into Cape Cod waters. Nitrogen may seem innocous enough, especially when compared with such bad actors as DDT, mercury or the alphabet soup that is industrial waste. After all, nitrogen is a critical component of plant fertilizer. So how can it be poisoning Cape Cod’s bays? The very same property that makes nitrogen an essential component of fertilizer can lead to dead zones in our oceans. If large amounts of nitrogen-rich wastes flow into the water, the algae in that water will multiply rapidly in response to the nutrient boost. Eventually, those algae will die, and as they decompose, the oxygen in the water is depleted, killing other organisms in the vicinity. Fish die-offs have been observed on the Cape due to this very process, known formally as eutrophication.

So where is the nitrogen coming from? Generally, animal (including human) wastes are the source. In the Midwest, this generally means agricultural run-off. But on Cape Cod, the culprit is septic systems. Because the Cape is a sand spit with little organic material in its soils, nitrogen rich water filters rapidly away from septic systems there and flows directly into the bays. Essentially, the sandy soils don’t hold the water long enough, nor do they contain enough organic molecules, to bind up the nitrogen, even when septic systems are up to date and operating effectively.

The problem is not new. In fact, the CLF/Buzzard’s Bay Coalition lawsuit cites a 1978 Areawide Plan for Cape Cod that predicted an ecological crisis due to septic tank runoff if the issue were not addressed. The lawsuit charges that the EPA failed to act on the Plan, or to annually update and approve it.

To read more about the suit, and about the issue, you can read CLF’s press release. And I also encourage you to read more about the missions of both groups–they are most worthy of your attention, and, may I say, your financial support. And that’s not entirely self-serving, I swear.




One response

20 12 2011
Global Envrionment Facility advises on ocean issues « SEANET Blog

[…] our global environment. Both topics have been featured here on this blog with some frequency: 1) hypoxic “dead zones” resulting from nutrient run-off into the oceans, and 2) Marine plastic pollution. The first issue […]

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