As a longtime observer of environmental affairs and 25-year veteran of the green industry, I’ve often been amazed at the polarized nature of debate on modern ecological topics, as well as some major oversights that have developed. The two main environmental subjects that EPA and its allies can’t shoot straight about involve reckless government sewage and stormwater handling—a source of thousands of public beach closures and millions of associated sick swimmers each year—and the routine fish kills, multiple large aquatic “dead zones” and other widespread problems caused by our heavily subsidized agribusiness.
EPA, various green groups and their friends in Legacy media are well aware of all this. But for the most part, they keep to the script of blaming all environmental harm on “corporate polluters” while concocting poor excuses to downplay government malfeasance.
With many environmental organizations promoting anti-industry fear to solicit contributions from their supporters—and with conservative/pro-business types permanently in defense mode pushing back on those narratives—these major pollution topics get little coverage and virtually zero traction in mainstream media or among the general public. At most, some hardcore environmentalists occasionally rail against “factory farms,” the one segment of agribusiness it’s OK to hate. But even that coverage is usually slanted for political purposes.
The many aspects of government pollution are all problematic. But all are drenched in power politics that most in Washington would rather not disturb. Admitting that non-industrial operators cause pollution threatens not only the entrenched message of the Green Lobby, but also the pristine image of the powerful Farm Lobby and the “progressive” aura of big-city political machines. These pollution sources lead to trouble waters in a variety of ways.
The twin pillars of government pollution are the skyrocketing usage of USDA-backed chemical fertilizers since 1945 and the 16,000 government-run (patronage laden) sewage treatment systems. The latter may work well during dry weather, but after a rain event soaks into porous sewer networks, anything goes, with EPA’s full approval. The option of privatizing the operations of any of these municipal monopolies with periodic competitive bidding is fiercely opposed by pro-government activists as well as civil service unions.
Farm Lobby advocates often claim chemical fertilizers are completely “natural” and nothing new, both assertions being false. Nitrogen is pulled from the air by a complex set of industrial steps known as the Haber–Bosch process. Phosphates are mined and purified at industrial facilities like this one in Florida. Chemical fertilizers have been a tremendous success for feeding a hungry world, but they create side-effects that still need to be addressed. Much of the nitrogen and phosphorous in fertilizers get absorbed into crops, fed to animals, then deposited as animal manure. The rest of it builds up in the soil or gets flushed into nature.
Subsidized agribusiness (FY 2020 USDA budget $150 billion, 91,000 agency staffers) gets a free pass to deposit over 20 millions of tons of chemical fertilizers and over a billion of tons of bacteria- and nutrient-rich animal manure right onto porous ground surfaces each year with little or no attempt at abatement. Much of that noxious stew is carried away via surface water or groundwater any time it rains, becoming major causes of nitrate contamination in drinking water wells, widespread river and lake pollution (according to EPA’s National Water Quality Inventory, which was more robust in the past), routine and substantial fish kills, and large “dead zones” in the Gulf of Mexico, Chesapeake Bay and scores of other locations.
While human waste is now collected and treated (except when it’s raining), very little effort goes to manage the mountains of animal waste created by the billions of chickens, pigs, cows and other tasty critters served up to consumers each year. Using the most conservative of available figures, at least 1.4 billion tons of livestock manure is produced each year in the U.S., which is roughly 130 times the amount of human waste generated annually in the nation. (Those manure figures come from a 1997 report from Tom Harkin, then-U.S. Senator from Iowa and strong supporter of agribusiness.) Whether that waste is stored in leaky open-air lagoons or spread haphazardly on broken soil, significant amounts seep into groundwater and cascade off of farmland whenever it rains. Downstream rivers, lakes and shorelines get hit with a tidal wave of this filth.
Regarding farm pollution, I’m intentionally avoiding the controversies about trace pesticide residues in food. Pesticides tend to be an obsession of some anti-chemical purists that I have reviewed and don’t find significant enough for discussions involving national environmental policy. Without the use of pesticides, there would be tens of billions in annual crop losses to weeds and insect damage in the U.S. alone.
On the topic of human sewage, as detailed later in this essay, EPA frequently boasts of the billions they helped spend for building and upgrading thousands of government-run wastewater facilities like the one pictured above. But high-tech equipment become irrelevant when leaky sewer pipes overload the plant causing pollution to bypass treatment and trigger waves of beach closings. Government’s inability to fix this longstanding problem beckons the old saying: “We can put a man on the moon” … but not handle this?
After decades of neglect, it looks like Lake Erie is headed backwards to routine beach closures and floating green algae blankets most summers. (EPA and environmentalists rarely admit why this once “dead” lake recovered in the 1970s. I’ll get to that important but forgotten victory.) Smelly, thick, toxic algae blooms fed from animal waste and chemical fertilizers—veritable rivers of “farm sewage”—wreak havoc at popular beaches from Ohio to Florida and harm every state across the U.S. farm belt.
Similar toxic algae blooms, oxygen-free aquatic dead zones, fish kills and beach closures are now a global phenomenon. The British magazine The Week reported on beach closures and algae blooms in France last summer. A story this year from UPI news leads off with “Record amounts of seaweed this summer have caused historic damage to beaches and cut tourism in Florida, Mexico and the Caribbean”; that article provides weak excuses that I’ll address in the Florida section of this essay. Pollution around China is so notorious that a single link to their algae problems barely does justice, although that article is quite good (scroll down in the prior link for a global map of 500 aquatic dead zones).
For this essay, I’ll stick primarily with American problems. Since we haven’t figured out a viable solution, there’s no sense in scolding the rest of the world. The first-third of this essay deals primarily with the travails surrounding government stormwater and sewage discharges—issues that mostly affect local residents or tourists in urban and suburban areas. The latter two-thirds address some of the many difficulties associated with farm pollution.
60-Second Op-Ed break for why concise articles are usually better than books. Partly in response to some previous comments on “long” article length, a few words are in order to challenge prevailing literary orthodoxy. To avoid the politicized world of modern book publishing, the long-format 500,000-word exhaustive manifesto approach was ruled out before I started typing the first line many years ago. Some of the problems with that highly subsidized format include full-time authors with no independence and/or little real-world experience, a tendency towards isolationism and single-issue extremism, and rampant hidden agendas. While grant-chasing academics rave about their beloved paper horcruxes ad nauseum, I find the anti-social nature of the monologue teaching style to be problematic and prone to pandering. Although a dialogue communication method would usually be preferred, I’ll settle for a comparatively shorter essay at a non-partisan publisher, with direct referencing web links and a “robust” comments section. I’d call that progress.
On the other hand, to keep this essay manageable for one or two extended sittings, I’ve skipped other significant farm anomalies. Important but omitted topics include: 1) the tremendous wasting of water to grow crops in arid parts of the nation, 2) environmentalists’ correct assertion that meat consumption creates a bigger impact on the environment than growing vegetables, due to the heavy fertilizer inputs and water usage for animal farming; to what degree coercive government policy is “needed” to achieve any green goals is another matter entirely, 3) EPA double standards on minor construction erosion vs. the much bigger issue of ongoing farm erosion and the expensive river dredging and dam sedimentation it causes, 4) the flimsy evidence and meanspirited assault against Monsanto for developing its beneficial herbicide Roundup—a product so safe that critics and trial lawyers resort to speech policing to make their twisted case. (There’s something really perverse when productive industries get worse courtroom treatment than suspected murderers and rapists. That’s the beauty of our “dual justice” system.)
For a snapshot on farm pollution (much more to come), I’ll lead off with the following national map of nitrate pollution from the U.S. Geological Survey published in 2006. The graphic is based on sampling from about 2,300 shallow groundwater wells, which they define as typically less than 5 meters deep, and associated computer modeling. This map is more reflective of nitrate surface pollution than contamination in deeper drinking water wells.
According to EPA’s annual Right to Know program, any aqueous nitrate compound is a reportable “toxic chemical” when used in excess of 5 tons per year by industries, even if nothing is discharged. Yet somehow, unlimited use and discharge of any nitrate compounds—in far greater quantities from agricultural fertilizers—is completely exempt from Right to Know reporting. In general, farm pollution is exempt from most U.S. environmental rules. This special treatment of agribusiness—staunchly guarded by USDA and the Farm Lobby—has allowed nitrates and other farm pollutants to environmentally accumulate across vast sections of the nation with little public attention.
Based on the USGS map of nitrate groundwater concentrations (generally coinciding with the presence of agriculture) farm pollution is now experienced from Washington and California across to Delaware, North Carolina and Florida, and throughout most of the Midwest. To get shallow groundwater nitrate levels to jump from below 1 mg/L (normal) to even 3 or 4 mg/L (light blue on the map)—over a few square miles, let alone an entire state—requires enormous chemical inputs. So this map, along with other evidence of present harm (not futuristic projections) caused by farm pollution, are anything but alarmist.
Dangerous Double Standards
I should probably mention up front my observation that private-sector industries are wildly over-regulated (discussed towards the end), although this harassment directly benefits the consulting engineering firms I’ve always worked for. I’m just an employee, not an owner; I get paid whether the rules make sense or not. And I’m not receiving payment for this writing.
With government-oriented pollution, political handling of bad actors works just the opposite as experienced by the private sector. Government polluters get coddled and subsidized as a general rule, and never face criticism as “polluters” in public. Government sewage dumping and socialized farm pollution draws no interest whatsoever from the conservative and libertarian camps, whom one might expect to pounce on these topics (if framed correctly). Their understandable hostility to anything sounding “green” sends them off the trail immediately. Liberal environmental groups have paid some mild and usually misguided attention to these topics over the years, but typically lose interest as soon as donations dry up from lack of an industrial ogre.
The profound double standards on public-sector vs. private-sector pollution goes beyond petty politics. When it comes to industrial pollution as well as pesticides, EPA and other public health officials use high-dose animal toxicology tests to project a dubious one-in-a-million lifetime adverse human response. That ostensible “extreme caution” quickly melts away when it comes to the major sources of government-subsidized pollution. For the trillions of gallons of urban stormwater discharges, municipal sewage dumping, and the foul runoff from socialized farming, associated pollutants like nitrates in drinking water, bacteria at public beaches and low-oxygen in lakes and estuaries are deemed completely “safe” unless they immediately sicken or kill large numbers of people or fish.
These double standards are problematic in all areas mentioned above. One particular discrepancy I’ll start with is Washington’s refusal to establish ANY long-term (or “chronic”) exposure limits to its controversial 10 milligram per liter (mg/L) short-term (or “acute”) nitrate standard for drinking water, established in 1962 and now managed by EPA. That short-term nitrate standard is apparently exceeded by many thousands of groundwater wells in the nation—where people may be consuming polluted water for years.
Rather than alert the public in any meaningful way, EPA clouds the discussion with incomprehensible data and stock photos of family purity, as shown on EPA’s main website on the topic. Unlike the national hysteria over elevated lead levels in Flint, Michigan’s tap water a few years ago, mass media also refrain from stern warnings of “poisoning” or “toxic” chemicals when murmuring about widespread nitrate contamination.
Side Bar on Today’s ‘Silent Green’: Almost two months into the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico that began on April 20, 2010—with so few actual animals being harmed—Legacy media spread fear of potential future injuries, as with this June 14, 2010 Newsweek cover. Just inside the magazine, their table of contents page featured a display of over a dozen white crosses implanted on a lawn in Louisiana—with the words “Summer Fun”, “Walking the Dog on the Beach”, “Gumbo” and other shoreline classics scrawled in black, signifying the anticipated deaths of these natural pleasures.
Eight years later, EPA’s quiet (probably low-ball) estimate for 2018 of 35,530 days of beach closures and advisories against swimming among America’s roughly 3,900 monitored beaches elicits only yawns from the same journalist watchdogs, as discussed below. As detailed in the Fish Kills section of this essay, millions of dead animals likely caused by farm pollution triggers scant concern from EPA, environmentalists and major media.
Thankfully, another federal agency shows more independence than EPA or the mass media. The U.S. Geological Survey’s 2006 study on nitrates in drinking water wells noted that “adverse effects are associated with nitrate concentrations as low as 2.5 mg/L” and “Recent studies have associated nitrate in drinking water with several types of cancer,” citing four other scientific studies to support the cancer claim. A separate USGS study published in 2010 estimated:
more than 1.2 million people live in areas predicted to have moderate nitrate contamination of groundwater (greater than 5 mg/L but less than or equal to the MCL [maximum contaminant level] of 10 mg/L).
My point here is not necessarily that large numbers of rural Americans run a significant risk of getting cancer. That’s a scientific matter for others to settle. My point is that EPA has a completely different set of scales when regulating pollution originating from the private sector and the public sector. One is ridiculously strict; the other is rather lenient.
Another reason I won’t dwell on the nitrate groundwater issue beyond this paragraph: it’s almost entirely a LOCAL issue. States and local jurisdictions can always be more strict than federal EPA standards. If local residents want cleaner well water, it’s up to them to change local laws or move to an area with city water services. If I lived in a house with well water, I would always drink bottled water. No one should need a federal program for that.
The other protracted public issues surrounding government pollution are more troubling and often cross state boundaries. Instead of taking any of these major problems seriously, EPA would much rather talk about “climate change”—a topic where they have nothing to lose. Federal bureaucrats coincidentally stand to reap political profits and job security if any of the multi-trillion dollar social overhaul plans become implemented. Non-profit environmental groups and subsidized college professors also prefer this righteously lucrative quest. All such parties usually forget to admit that their relentless fury is over a 1°C rise in global temperatures over the last century. (For an alternate view, here’s an article from Collective Evolution on the many flaws of climate doom, including a good video from the co-founder of Greenpeace.)
Even if some or most of that temperature increase does come from man-made sources (which is debatable) there is no need for immediate panic to “ACT NOW!” Five or ten more years of data collection and “refining the models” won’t harm anyone. Every additional year of dawdling on government-related pollution causes significant, proven damage affecting millions of people in the U.S. and probably billions elsewhere.
The Principles Behind any Legitimate Pollution Policy
As much as I don’t care for ideologues who incessantly reiterate their enshrined principles—to the neglect of any realistic solutions—I’ll agree that any good policy should have some legitimate philosophy to stand on. Unfortunately, professional pundits of various persuasions usually offer false choices of: A) millions of arbitrary rules enforced on everyone, B) only rules imposed on unpopular minorities, or C) no rules whatsoever, coupled with blind faith that the “marketplace” will magically sort everything out.
A better option rarely mentioned among the chattering classes: establishing and enforcing clear LIMITS on harmful actions imposed on others—such as pollution or speeding or drunk driving or other tangible actions that can be proven to cause harm, where no voluntary market remedy is available. Meaningful prohibitions on toxic products like leaded gasoline or phosphate detergents can also be useful, when safer alternatives exist. But full prohibition is not appropriate for products discussed in this essay.
Limits (or progressive thresholds) on harmful activity put the focus on real outcomes, not ambiguous thought crimes of “intent.” Giving people wide latitude to comply with a few objective limits, where necessary, maximizes efficiency and freedom of choice—as opposed to maximizing political power and opacity. By their nature, objective limits curb the damage from trouble makers abusing the public for personal gain.
One of the better programs managed by EPA is the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) that establish objective thresholds on various air pollutants like “smog” (ground-level ozone), particulate dust, sulfur dioxide and a few other common emissions. Congress mandated the NAAQS approach in the 1970 Clean Air Act, when politicians were thinking somewhat more rationally—although air pollution is rarely an interstate issue.
Doing Too Much on the Little Things… Almost Nothing on Major Problems
On overall environmental affairs, we have a rare category where state and federal authorities arguably do WAY TOO MUCH of the wrong things yet completely fail in their objectives on other daunting local and interstate pollution matters. With most mainstream observers preoccupied arguing for or against climate action, and devout eco-puritans obsessed exclusively with industrial pollution—these problems have been festering for decades.
Few people probably give much thought to where wastewater goes after it gets flushed down the toilet or swirled down the shower drain. The answer: any of the nation’s 16,000 municipal sewage plants. These facilities are almost always owned and operated by local government. In the first three decades of EPA’s existence, the agency helped dispense over $100 billion in federal tax dollars to upgrade municipal wastewater facilities or build new ones altogether. By inserting EPA into the grant application review process, Congress threw away any pretense of objective oversight. This conflict of interest is even more profound with the EPA-USDA farm pollution “management plans” (I’ll get to those)—kind of like the Dallas Cowboys hiring the same people to manage the team and referee the game. A totally flawed concept, but “good enough” for most in Washington.
The alternative of establishing and enforcing pollution limits even-handedly—rain or shine—on all participants was rejected long ago. The excitement of handing out billions in urban and suburban pork was evidently too irresistible. In all the commotion, the longstanding problem of leaking sewer networks—inundating sewage plants with massive amounts of infiltration every time it rains—was another lapse of judgment.
On the topic of just how “socialized” farming has become, the hefty U.S. Department of Agriculture budget of $150 billion (which doesn’t all go directly into farmers’ pockets) does not include the ethanol mandates, generous property tax breaks, special exemptions to utilize immigrant labor, or the cut-rate water prices granted to agribusiness. Abusing taxpayers and the environment is hardly “new” to the subsidized farming community. These are the same guys who drained millions of acres of wetlands (see Figure 5), plowed down even greater swaths of drought-resistant prairie grass and brought us the horizon-darkening Dust Bowl of the 1930s—easily the worst man-made environmental catastrophe in American history. With help from major media, the Farm Lobby still insists that deadly assault was totally, utterly, completely not their fault!
U.S. Beach Closures
On the growing problem of beach closures, it wouldn’t quite be correct to say that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is doing nothing. They’re actually in heavy spin mode, consistently downplaying the problem with passive language about “runoff” and “overflows” to put people at ease. They also maintain a slick Beaches website that shows pristine shorelines with frolicking children. (EPA only uses the term “dumping” for private-sector discharges.)
EPA’s prime offering on the subject is its annual Beaches Environmental Assessment and Coastal Health (BEACH) report. Their most recent 2018 edition was a paltry 3 pages. On page 2, we learn that “Almost half (47 percent) of coastal and Great Lakes beaches in the United State were monitored in 2018.” In other words, over half of America’s beaches are still not monitored at all. EPA felt this major finding warranted a single sentence.
On the last page of the EPA BEACH report, we get another single sentence mentioning “Notification actions were reported on 35,530 days” in 2018 among America’s roughly 3,900 monitored beaches. “Notification action” is jargon for when beaches are closed or have posted advisories against swimming.
EPA neglects to mention that these figures are based on self-reporting by the same government staff who run the beaches and desperately want vacation tax dollars flowing into state coffers. EPA also claims that 95% of the time, beaches are “safe for swimming,” which is debatable due to lax health standards on beach water quality. Any day of beach closure would be a big deal if your summer vacation was canceled by a sign reading “Beach Closed. No Swimming Allowed.”
To see a more professional beach report, California’s private non-profit group Heal the Bay’s annual Beach Report Card seems to be the gold standard for coastal water quality assessments. A related article on beach closures in USA Today begins to touch on why this is such a sensitive topic to tax-hungry state and local authorities:
Los Angeles’ recreation department referred inquiries to the California Coastal Commission, which issued a statement that said curtailing pollution is a high priority: “Our $45 billion a year coastal economy depends on keeping the water and beaches clean.”
If you happen to stumble across EPA’s Nutrient Indicators Dataset, which is not well publicized, you’ll read that:
Recent estimates suggest that nitrogen and phosphorus pollution in freshwaters [ignoring ocean pollution] costs the U.S. at least $2.2 billion annually, with the greatest losses attributed to diminished property values and recreational uses of water (Dodds et al. 2009).
Decades ago, this type of report was filed away in a dusty bookshelf and forgotten about, until the next round of research funding became available. Now, it collects cyber dust.
EPA’s Conflicted Interests: Paying Polluters to Pollute while also Playing ‘Eco-Cop’
Contrary to common belief, there was already widespread progress in water pollution prior to the creation of the federal Environmental Protection Agency in 1970. Throughout the 1950s and 60s, U.S. cities and towns were upgrading their sewage treatment facilities from “primary” treatment (such as settling tanks) to “secondary” treatment (including aeration systems to biologically remove organisms). These government-owned facilities are commonly referred to as Publicly Operated Treatment Works or POTWs.
EPA’s 2004 Report to Congress on Combined Sewer Overflows and Sanitary Sewer Overflows (CSOs and SSOs) states:
- 30 percent of POTWs (3,529 of 11,784) provided secondary treatment in 1950.
- 72 percent of POTWs (10,052 of 14,051) provided secondary treatment in 1968.
- 99 percent of 16,024 POTWs provided secondary or greater treatment, or were “no-discharge facilities,” in 1996.
It appears that nearly all of the sewage treatment plant (POTW) progress between 1950 and 1968 came from state and local funding. The 1956 Clean Water Act only allocated $0.15 billion to Construction Grants for sewage plant upgrades. EPA does not specify how much federal funding was provided during the next decade but states: “Additional construction grant funding was authorized with the 1961, 1965, and 1966 [Clean Water Act] amendments.”
The 1972 Federal Water Pollution Control Act (a.k.a. the official “Clean Water Act”) merely put a sloppy and expensive band-aid on the wound. Washington’s solution in 1972: spend federal tax money to reward the political machines of big city sewage polluters.
According to EPA’s 2004 Report to Congress on CSOs and SSOs “between 1970 and 2000, the federal government invested more than $122 billion in the nation’s wastewater infrastructure” in 2000 dollars. In their excitement to “save” the planet and spend taxpayer money, Congress and EPA overlooked a crucial detail. Even the most high-tech sewage treatment facilities don’t work when they get inundated with incoming sewage and stormwater every time it rains. As it turns out, government-run sewage plants accidentally receive massive amounts of infiltration from leaking sewer networks. EPA estimates that local governments own about 584,000 miles of sewer pipes. After a heavy rain, many (probably most) of the nation’s thousands of municipal sewage plants dump partially treated wastewater into the nearest receiving water body, usually out of sight from the general public. And EPA has successfully fought to have this practice remain fully legal.
The last time Congress tasked EPA with reporting on government sewage affairs, in 2004, the agency estimated that combined storm-and-sanitary sewers (found in older cities around the Great Lakes and Northeast) annually discharge 850 billion gallons of untreated sewage and stormwater—equivalent to 13 days of flow from Niagara Falls. Combined sewers discharge 80 times the fecal coliform load compared to all treated wastewater discharged by the nation’s sewage treatment facilities, per EPA data.
In EPA’s own words from that same report (page 2-9):
In 1980, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit accepted EPA’s interpretation of the Clean Water Act that discharges at CSO [Combined Sewer Overflow] outfalls are not discharges from POTWs and thus are not subject to the limits based on secondary treatment standards otherwise applicable to POTWs.
CSO discharge volumes are nothing compared to the torrent of 10 trillion gallons of untreated urban stormwater discharged to public rivers, lakes and beaches by municipalities each year. This tsunami of dirty street runoff tainted with gasoline, food scraps, tire residues and oil drippings contains 2.4 million tons of suspended solids and over 20 times the fecal coliform load than all the treated wastewater discharged by the entire country, according to EPA’s 2004 Report to Congress (page 4-29).
To give some comparison to the “good” discharges from American sewage plants, EPA estimates (A) 11.43 trillion gallons of treated wastewater annually disposed by public municipalities, with a median concentration of (B) 200 counts of fecal coliforms per 100 milliliters (mL). EPA estimates untreated urban stormwater runoff to be much more polluted, with about 5,100 counts of fecal coliforms per 100 mL. (Drinking water, in contrast, must have zero counts of fecal bacteria or other coliforms per 100 mL to pass EPA standards for human consumption. 100 mL is roughly one-tenth of a quart, or about one large mouthful.)
To comprehend the total municipal fecal coliform load to the environment for the latter waste stream, multiply A x B x 37.85 (conversion factor for units of “100 mL” per gallon) x 22.4 times worse based on field data. This gives you a really huge number (194 with 16 trailing zeroes)—EPA’s estimate just for annual fecal bacteria discharges in segregated urban stormwater. This wastewater is considered so “clean” that virtually no one bothers to treat it. (City stormwater contains other pollutants as well, but I’ll just focus on the tail end here.)
Multiplying that unfathomable number with 16 trailing zeroes times about 3.6 gives you EPA’s estimate for fecal coliform load to the environment from combined storm-and-sanitary sewer “overflows” annually. One swallow of combined sewer potpourri (perhaps while swimming at a public beach) could send you to the hospital. But at least your “privacy rights” would be secure, since Legacy media would most likely ignore your suffering.
Getting Sick from Sewage
When you add it all up, the public sewer fiasco amounts to some troubled waters to dive into. Swimming in partially treated wastewater has long been known to cause human illness. But the question of how much sickness is less clear, and not something EPA likes to publicly talk about. This topic also rarely receives mainstream attention.
Looking back quite a bit, the June 12, 2000 issue of U.S. News and World Report mentioned a preliminary study done for the EPA that estimated over 1 million Americans get sick each year just from sanitary sewage overflows. (From my discussions with associated EPA staff two years later, the agency apparently never released the final version.) In another brief disclosure, EPA pitched similar figures—strictly as an opportunity, though, not a problem. Buried in a 1999 report to Congress, EPA claimed that “up to 500,000 cases of illness will be avoided annually” just by “reducing” stormwater pollution with their programs.
Current beach sickness data seems to be both worse yet possibly more opaque. Giving credit where much is due, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) has been the national leader on reporting beach closure activity since 1991—long before EPA offered any public attention to the topic. NRDC’s 2014 Testing the Waters report states: “The EPA has estimated that up to 3.5 million people become ill from contact with raw sewage from sanitary sewer overflows [SSOs] each year.” (This excludes combined sewers and polluted stormwater, which discharge nearly 50 times the fecal load as SSOs.) Besides the fact that EPA is staying quiet on this important finding, NRDC’s footnote to that figure raises eyebrows to say the least:
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, NPDES Permit Requirements for Municipal Sanitary Sewer Collection Systems, Municipal Satellite Collection Systems, and Sanitary Sewer Overflows, January 4, 2001, withdrawn January 20, 2001. (bold added)
NRDC adds that “Many public health experts believe the number of illnesses caused by untreated sewage and other beach pollution sources may be much higher than is currently recognized because people who get sick from swimming in polluted recreational waters are not always aware of the cause of their illness and do not report it to doctors or local health officials.”
A newcomer to the beach closure issue, Environment America, confirms NRDC’s “much higher” assessment. Environment America’s July 2019 report on Water Quality at Our Beaches states: “Each year in the U.S., swimmers suffer from an estimated 57 million cases of recreational waterborne illness.” Their figure comes from a study by public health scientists at the Universities of Illinois and Indiana, published in the January 2018 issue of Environmental Health (Table 3).
It turns out that Environment America is being conservative with their reporting of that study, which mentions another 30 million illness from waters contacted while fishing and boating. Digging in a bit further, the combined 87 million illnesses are based on a total of 4 billion annual surface water recreation events in America. That comes to a 2.2% incidence rate of sickness for each swimming, fishing or boating event on average. Focusing just on beach swimming, 1.9 billion annual recreation events with 57 million illnesses (mainly acute gastrointestinal ailments) yields a 3% rate of sickness. So an afternoon of swimming at the beach doesn’t guarantee you’ll be sick the next day. But if there were heavy rains prior to your outing, the odds of catching a bad stomach ache may increase.
Regardless of whose figures we settle on, millions of U.S. citizens get sick every year from contacting sewage that should not be in the water. EPA’s conflict of interest from its decades of assuming the role of POTW Construction Grants kingmaker may have something to do with their reticence to come public with these important findings. With any matter of industrial pollution allegedly causing much less civic harm, EPA would be thundering fire and brimstone.
Keeping People in the Dark: No ‘Right to Know’ on Government Pollution
The amazing part of all this, due to Congressional and EPA malfeasance, government sewage dumping and farm pollution are completely exempt from the popular and effective Right to Know reporting of the EPA’s annual Toxic Release Inventory. If anyone wants to get serious about these major pollution sources, this would seem to be a good place to start. States and counties don’t have to wait for federal EPA permission to broaden their local reporting requirements.
Mind you, not all food production is exempt from federal Right to Know reporting, which falls under Title 40 of the Code of Federal Regulations, Part 372, or 40 CFR 372 for anyone eager to dive into the environmental weeds. Private-sector food processors are fully liable to report their comparatively minor and well-controlled releases. Private-sector energy utilities, mining companies and waste handling facilities are also subject to annual Right to Know reporting. Only utilities owned by the government (i.e., sewage treatment plants) and heavily subsidized agribusiness are exempt. So there seems to be a pattern.
EPA goes to great lengths to establish double standards for increasingly trivial private-sector industrial emissions vs. more harmful public-sector activity. For instance, nitrates (one of the key government pollutants) are officially designated a “toxic chemical” under the Right to Know reporting—if discharged by industry. Another baddie, ammonia, is both a “toxic chemical” under those rules and also an “extremely hazardous substance” triggering additional Right to Know burdens—again, if you’re a manufacturing facility. Phosphates are strictly limited in industrial and some municipal wastewater discharges, but get a free pass for most farmers to intentionally place on the ground with no controls.
For subsidized farming and government sewage facilities, vast disposal rates of these synthetic chemicals suddenly become “natural” and exempt from Right to Know rules. Wet-weather government sewage releases may prompt some rudimentary paperwork recordkeeping, but also get special exemptions for unlimited pollution. These disparities keep the public unaware of real environmental and health threats.
The One Segment of Agribusiness it’s OK to Hate: ‘CAFOs’
EPA, USDA and Legacy media usually can’t even bring themselves to say “farm pollution.” If the words “farming” and “pollution” are ever used in an agency report or mainstream news article (rare in itself), you can be sure that officials and journalists will throw in warning labels of “industrial” feedlots or “factory” farming. Such reporting invariably injects their favorite acronym “CAFO”—short for Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations—giving themselves an easy buzz-word to dehumanize the selected target of shame. (Regardless of how a person feels about confined animal farming, conditions that may involve unnecessary animal cruelty have little to do with discussions of effective environmental policy.)
One recent example of anti-CAFO incitement comes from a HuffPost article that was also carried by Microsoft News. The entire hit-piece uses harsh language to demonize a proposed “mega-dairy” in Wisconsin and features no less than five full-screen staged photos of their appointed CAFO-slaying heroes looking resolute and brave. Dairy business owners, their employees and prospective customers who want to benefit from the proposed “giant” farm are never pictured at all.
Even more disturbing, the story never once mentions the more neutral term “farm pollution.” The preferred moniker “CAFO” is recited 10 times. Common to most anti-CAFO propaganda, the story makes a great fuss over the relatively low concentrations of nitrates in animal manure (still a problem to be managed properly) but completely overlooks the greater amounts of high-concentration nitrates from chemical fertilizers. Chemical fertilizers are not mentioned once in the HuffPost/Microsoft push piece. That is totally nuts.
Back in the real world, EPA data show that nitrogen in fertilizer (11.9 million metric tons in 2007) exceeds nitrogen from manure (6.2 million metric tons) by almost 2 to 1. Phosphorous tonnages from fertilizer and manure are about the same according to EPA as of 2007, the most recent year both data sets are available. However, purity rates are much higher in chemical fertilizers, making off-site pollution more likely following precipitation. Since most of the nutrients in manure originated from chemical fertilizers taken up by crops, any focus solely on animal agriculture misses the point.
Science and logic being no impediment, anti-CAFO hysteria is all the rage with “green” groups looking for attention. The Environmental Law & Policy Center issued a screed on Lake Erie pollution with a headline blaming an “Explosion of Unregulated Factory Farms.” The Michigan state chapter of Sierra Club and many other groups have entire webpages dedicated to outlawing “Factory Farms” instead of merely limiting their impacts. The activist group Change.org reduces this to a simple demand to “End Factory Farming,” with 2.4 million pledged supporters.
Even the less combative environmental groups continue to put blind trust in government to come up with some magic “permit” or “regulation” to make everything better. The concept of limiting farm pollution—then leaving farmers alone—still avoids most pollution critics.
Considering their gross inconsistencies and general track record, the anti-CAFO bias among green groups and mainstream media can most likely be attributed to the fact that large, organized farms are highly profitable compared to many small, inefficient farms that struggle to stay in business. As with urban welfare, advocates of central planning often cannot stand any member of their protected classes showing independent success; this makes the others look bad while bringing public “uplift” policies into question. To avoid these embarrassments, uniform failure is generally preferred.
The EPA-USDA Solution to Farm Pollution: “Comprehensive” Paperwork
Before “comprehensive immigration reform” (often synonymous with open borders) came into vogue, EPA and USDA developed an environmental-farm rescue scheme in 1999 they called “comprehensive nutrient management plans.” The latter term equates to an elaborate paperwork distraction for endless faith in bureaucracy. And their management plans only apply to the largest animal operations—such as farms with at least 1,000 cattle, 2,500 pigs, 10,000 sheep, 55,000 turkeys, or 125,000 chickens. One animal less equals total federal exemption. EPA’s 2012 Permit Writers’ Manual for Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (PDF page 30) states:
Today, there are slightly more than one million farms with livestock in the United States. EPA estimates that about 212,000 of those farms are likely to be AFOs [animal feeding operations]—operations where animals are kept and raised in confinement. … and that 8,000 of these CAFOs have NPDES [national] permit coverage.
That is, less than 1% of livestock farms in the U.S. had any type of national environmental permit as of 2012. States usually implement federal EPA wastewater policy and may occasionally set lower thresholds to cover more feedlots. Cropland that uses unlimited amounts of chemical fertilizers are exempt from most (if not all) state and federal pollution laws.
According to legend, unscrupulous industrial polluters did the kind of behavior depicted below at midnight when no one was looking. The story continues that corporate villains did so to “save money” because they were “greedy” profiteers. Today, open “dumping” of harmful chemicals and wastes occurs in broad daylight because it’s cheap and legal. The fact that industries did “good things” with most chemicals they processed never gave them an excuse for reckless abandonment of the residues. Socialized farming has always been granted this privilege.
Even for the largest “mega-farms” on green activists’ radar, the EPA-USDA plans are generic reports with some token provision for better management, like not allowing cattle to congregate in a stream… at least not for too long. Another favorite is to have farmers stipulate in writing that they won’t use any more manure on their crops than is “agronomically necessary.” That sounds nice, but is impossible to enforce without constant police-state surveillance and/or self-incrimination—a popular strategy with regulators that farmers should watch out for.
Even if nutrient application limits could be enforced, it wouldn’t safeguard the environment since crops cannot possibly take up all the toxic ammonia, nitrates, phosphates and other chemicals in the soil. These toothless plans allow politicians to say “we got involved, we spent money.” But not much, if anything, gets achieved according to widespread failures witnessed from Florida to Chesapeake Bay to Lake Erie and other locations where USDA has implemented thousands of these “comprehensive plans.” In the heavily distressed Chesapeake watershed alone, USDA boasts of having “invested more than $1 billion in technical and financial assistance” in agricultural pollution management efforts since 2009.
By all indications, USDA wants to be seen as part of the solution, while protecting agribusiness from any meaningful limitations on harmful practices, thereby keeping its swollen $150 billion budget and 90,000+ government jobs off-limits to scrutiny. This is nothing new. Maintaining the pristine image of “family farmers” has been a crucial part of their agenda for over a century.
People unfamiliar with rural politics may not be aware of the tremendous clout of corporate agribusiness. For the sake of this essay, I’ll just note that the general term “Farm Lobby” covers a sprawling collection of influential subgroups networking the corridors of Congress and most State capitols. These include Big Fertilizer, Big Corn, Big Ethanol, Big Soy, Big Wheat, Big Rice, Big Dairy, Big Pork, Big Beef and countless others—with more official sounding names that I won’t bother you with—who all work to bend political power in their favor. All of these organized special interests stand to lose influence, tax breaks and/or subsidies if talk of “farm pollution” tarnishes their crafted portrait of agrarian wholesomeness. Suffice to say, their collective strength has kept Congress and EPA petrified for generations.
Here is EPA’s ideal method of “regulating” farm pollution, from their 2012 Permit Writers’ Manual for CAFOs. The photo and caption are from EPA:
EPA-USDA “comprehensive nutrient management plans” are so narrow (and lacking transparency) that routine practices like chemical fertilizer application are completely exempt. Establishing objective thresholds—even voluntary ones—for harmful pollution levels cascading off farmland is not considered. Pollution limits aren’t even mentioned. In other words, EPA and USDA are not serious about reducing farm pollution.
If the Farm Lobby were wise, they would be begging for objective limits on off-site pollution. This would free them up to meet those limits however deemed appropriate… then get back to farming. Industries failed to learn this lesson in the 1960s and are still paying a huge price for it. The suspicion that politicians might set limits that are impossible to meet faces at least two big obstacles: 1) politicians hate being held accountable (as would the outcry from even one farmer being put out of business by “green tyranny”), and 2) the Farm Lobby and USDA would strenuously fight against any economically adverse limits from being enacted. Politicians prefer the vagueness of “management plans” to minimize transparency while maximizing photo opportunities with smiling farm-grant recipients.
And the federal refusal to get serious on government-oriented pollution is nothing new. Prior to the 2004 election, when asked about the environmental loopholes for farming, President George W. Bush told Pollution Engineering magazine:
“To help States clean up non-point source pollution, I signed a record $40 billion in conservation funding into law as part of the 2002 Farm Bill.”
In any other situation, EPA and the Green Lobby decry this behavior as “paying polluters to pollute,” an accurate assessment in the case of federal spending on farm pollution.
As alluded by Mr. Bush, regulators and lawmakers often make excuses for farm pollution, citing technical jargon about the alleged difficulties in reducing “non-point” pollution (that is, pollution without a discharge pipe). But landfills, Superfund sites and ground soaked from leaking fuel storage tanks are also classic non-point sources. That flimsy excuse never stopped Congress and EPA from targeting those activities for infinitely more expensive cleanups.
Is Lake Erie Dying Again? How was it ‘Saved’ in the First Place?
With so little national attention being paid on legitimate environmental topics, America seems to have lost ground in one of the premier battlefronts of the original green movement: Lake Erie, which was widely pronounced “dead” during the late 1960s. Much less frequently mentioned are the causes of the shallow lake’s early obituary, as well as its rapid comeback.
The top culprit for the rotting algae that sucked oxygen out of the lake, making fish scarce and closing local beaches, was the use of phosphate laundry detergents. Basic sewage treatment facilities of the era did almost nothing to remove the dissolved pollutant, which passed through to the receiving water body. Untreated industrial wastes, municipal sewage discharges and the increase of chemical agriculture certainly played their parts, but the use of phosphate laundry detergents exploded during the 1950s and 60s and triggered the biggest overall ecological shock that devastated the smallest of the Great Lakes.
The 1999 U.S. Geological Survey report “Review of Phosphorus Control Measures in the United States” (chart extracted below) verifies the steep increase in nationwide consumption of phosphorous in detergents—peaking at 220,000 metric tons in 1967. The agency notes:
In 1967, the U.S. Congress established the Joint Industry-Government Task Force on Eutrophication with the goal of accelerating research into the development of suitable substitutes for phosphates in detergent.
USGS data shows the usage of phosphate detergents plummeting over 50% nationwide within 5 years, thanks to the prevalence of statewide bans starting in the early 1970s. Since the initial bans were heavily centered around the Great Lakes, we can assume phosphate detergent usage dropped off more precipitously in that region.
For historical conditions in Lake Erie, we have the following graph that I obtained about 20 years ago from the Center for Great Lakes Environmental Education. The top point on the graph below from “Burns 1976” apparently did not anticipate the steep decline in phosphate detergent usage after 1967.
Nevertheless, the regional ban on phosphate detergents—and its enormous benefits to Lake Erie water quality—have almost entirely been forgotten. When Time magazine did a retrospective in December 1979 titled “Comeback for the Great Lakes,” phosphate detergents received a single sentence out of a three-page feature:
One of the largest sources of the harmful phosphates was common laundry detergent, but the levels have now been lowered by law in every state and province bordering the [great] lakes except Ohio.
Wikipedia’s lengthy entry on Lake Erie acknowledges its “dead” status in the 1960s and 70s, but splits the blame between “industry” (with no scientific evidence) and sewage dumping (with some data). Wikipedia doesn’t mention detergents at all. Again, no industrial scapegoat equals no interest.
While the condition of Lake Erie presumably has not regressed to the point of the 1960s—thanks largely to expensive improvements in industrial wastewater treatment and sewage treatment, and the phosphate detergent ban—signs of fatigue are increasingly evident. The pictures below ran in the Spring 2015 edition of the quarterly magazine of the State University of New York (SUNY) at Buffalo, under the title of “Green Menace.”
The western basin of Lake Erie looked just as sick in 2017, based on satellite photos published earlier this year by Mother Jones, who also reproduced NOAA’s algae bloom severity chart for 2002 to 2018. That chart of western Lake Erie shows algae blooms getting significantly worse over the last two decades, although individual years vary to some degree.
The SUNY Buffalo article acknowledged the past progress in Lake Erie, noting that after the 1960s catastrophe in the region “the U.S. spent $8 billion over the next two decades to improve wastewater treatment, and state and local laws reduced phosphates in laundry detergents; these steps significantly reduced levels of the minerals that fed toxic algae growth in the lake.”
As for current algae blooms and frequent beach closures, the SUNY Buffalo article offers a mostly passive and apologetic assessment towards farming:
This time around, the brunt of the blame for outsized algae blooms is largely directed at farmers, who, in a chase for higher yields, have been accused of overloading their fields with fertilizers, such as manure, that naturally contain phosphorous and nitrogen. … To be fair, it’s not all the farmers’ fault.
Actually, this time it is overwhelmingly the farmers’ fault. To get some idea of the intensive chemical activity on farms around Lake Erie, we can look at a recent report from the state of Ohio’s environmental agency. The Ohio EPA’s April 2018 study “Nutrient Mass Balance Study for Ohio’s Major Rivers” provides figures on “non-point pollution” (code word here for farm pollution) for the major rivers in Ohio that feed Lake Erie. The Ohio study did not include inputs to Lake Erie from the massive Detroit River or any rivers in Canada.
Major Ohio Rivers Feeding Lake Erie
|River||Loading Percentage from “non-point” sources (1)||Nutrient Loading Mass from Rivers (metric tons/year) (2)|
|Other Frontal Tributaries||76%||78%||161||3,020|
- “Non-point” pollution is primarily from agriculture. Balance of nutrient pollution comes from industrial/municipal “point” sources and septic tanks.
- Nutrient loading rates are 2013 – 2017 averages. Totals for all sources (point and non-point).
- Cuyahoga River (near Cleveland) gets high nutrient percentage inputs from its urban population and industrial facilities, yet still contributes less than 10% of total Ohio nutrient loadings by mass.
“Point” sources are what government officials call anything discharged from a pipe directly to a water body, such the effluents from sewage treatment plants and industrial facilities. If it were legal, industries could just discharge untreated wastewaters right on the land. Voila, problem solved. But private businesses are not allowed this exemption.
Reacting to the Ohio EPA’s 2018 study, the Toledo Blade published a superficially scathing editorial “Lake Erie shame.” The editorial criticizes state regulators for making “no progress at all” in the last 5 years and even scolds “the Ohio Farm Bureau, one of the state’s most powerful lobbies” for “absurd and insulting” foot dragging.
Then their higher calling arose with a plea for more “help from Columbus [Ohio’s capital] in the form of incentives for pollution-reducing practices, along with grants and loans” for agribusiness. The Blade editorial ends with:
The farmers are not our enemy. They feed us. But they need help—greater help than denial, rationalization, and cover-up.
This type of appeasement is very common in farm country and from the many USDA experts that receive warm coverage from Legacy media. Farm Lobby spokesmen will say anything to distract attention from holding privileged landowners accountable. The demonstrated harm of unlimited discharges from chemical fertilizers so completely challenges the perpetual victim narrative among farmers that some people can’t come to grips with it.
I’m not suggesting that anyone tries to ban or restrict the use or application of fertilizers. Those would be terrible ideas that could greatly harm food production. The focus should be on actual pollution limits, as should have been apparent over 50 years ago. It’s only the post-1970 obsession with legalistic double standards and reflexive demonization of evil “polluters” (always said to be from industry) that got some people distracted from this reality.
The questions of how much of the nitrogen and phosphates get taken up by crops at a given farm (which varies considerably), how much accumulate on the land and how much migrate to nearby waters have been studied extensively by EPA, USDA and other federal agencies. We don’t need more studies and computer modeling. We probably need more direct monitoring (i.e., groundwater wells downstream of agribusiness and stormwater sampling points at farm ditches) which would confirm whether bureaucratic projections are accurate or not. Congress could also shift public reporting duties to more independent agencies like USGS or NOAA, since EPA has shown an inability to be objective.
Beyond that, low-tech abatement measures for farm pollution like holding ponds, buffer vegetation strips, nutrient-absorbing trees, cover crops during the off-season, or possibly more effective fertilizer application seem most practical here. All of those have been tried and tested by the USDA in voluntary field studies that lack public accountability.
And it’s not like agribusiness—America’s original landed nobility—can’t spare a few acres of soil. The feudal barons of subsidized farming collectively own about 400 million acres of cropland in the U.S. (roughly four times the size of California) and another 650 million acres of sparse pasture and rangeland. These minimally productive lands (compared to any other human venture) are bestowed with free Farm-to-Market roads and rural electrification—but usually skate by on the thinnest of tax payments. American farmers have enough idle land (see USDA land use graphics from Bloomberg) to set small segments aside to prevent their chemical activity from traveling off-site and spoiling the public domain. The only missing ingredients at this point are accountability and the political will to stop pandering.
A Big Mess in Florida… and more Excuses
The photo below from a current EPA website is not dated, but similar conditions were reported in 2019 at that river and throughout the state of Florida.
Lest anyone think government pollution is merely a phenomenon in the Northeast or possibly the Midwest, I’ll look at one more state that falls into neither category. A recent UPI story titled “Record seaweed blooms cut tourism, hurt beaches in Florida, Caribbean” provides some general background along with lots of subterfuge:
The sargassum seaweed has piled up several feet deep in South Florida and other regions, becoming a plague for tourists and wildlife alike. It also rots quickly on land and creates a stink. … Miami-Dade County in Florida alone has estimated hauling all the seaweed would cost $45 million per year.
And who’s to blame? As usual, it is mostly the rain’s fault. The article reports on similar problems south of the border and quotes a state beach expert:
“It’s always been known that the Amazon River in Brazil supplies nutrients that lead to algae blooms,” [state university professor, Stephen] Leatherman said. “In recent years, studies have shown that deforestation and agriculture in the Amazon, along with heavy rains, have increased the nutrients.”
As for U.S. agribusiness (fairly strong in Florida), not a single word in the story mentioned the possibility of this pollution originating from American farms. But it does mention the theory that smoke from fires in Africa “might” be playing a role… ruining beaches in Florida.
How much farming occurs in Florida, that the UPI reporter failed to mention? EPA reports from 2011 show that Florida agribusiness purchased 146,500 metric tons of nitrogen fertilizer and 43,200 metric tons of phosphate fertilizer, with another 132,800 metric tons of those nutrients coming from animal manure as of 2007, their latest figures. When it rains—as it often does in the gator state—those minerals soak through the soil and cascade into nearby ditches to feed blankets of seaweed at the shorelines and spectacular algae blooms along interior waters. In recent years, Florida has also experienced scores of massive fish kills, which I’ll address in the next section.
To put the annual nitrogen fertilizer usage rate for Florida into context, their 146,500 tons is close to the combined total of 178,100 tons for neighboring states Georgia and Alabama. But it’s nowhere near the leading nitrogen fertilizer appetites of corn gluttons Iowa (1.2 million tons) and Illinois (964,000 tons), much of which ends up polluting the Mississippi River and Gulf of Mexico—with EPA’s studied approval.
In Search of a Few Good Greens: The U.S. could use a Registry of Fish Kills
The problem with farm pollution and to a lesser extent urban sewage, is that whenever it rains, the toxic swill of fertilizer runoff joins with residuals from animal and human waste and creates damage off-site. Rivers, lakes and ocean shorelines end up with higher sediment and nutrient loadings. That pollution feeds algae blooms that decompose and suck the oxygen out of the water, killing sometimes thousands or millions of fish.
Apparently, fish don’t like swimming in sewage any more than people do. More to the point, the frequency and extent of fish kills are good indicators of the ultimate success or failure of any government environmental program—as opposed to bureaucratic boasting about permits and penalties.
Despite decades of rather evident neglect from state and local officials—who gladly accept Farm Lobby contributions then look the other way when pollution flows into interstate waters—EPA shows no interest in compiling anything close to a nationwide registry of fish kills.
At most, federal agencies may insert brief local or state anecdotes within other annual reports when farm lagoon ruptures become too obvious to ignore. For instance, the EPA’s 2004 Report to Congress on CSOs and SSOs has one small table on “Fish Kills Reported in North Carolina: 1997-2002” (page 5-18). In that table we learn that during those six years, the nation’s second leading hog state of North Carolina experienced 349 separate fish kill events with over 4.3 million fish killed. And this is just one state. Yet there is no mention at all of agriculture influencing fish kills in that EPA report.
EPA’s premier report on water pollution—the originally biennial but now sporadic National Water Quality Inventory (NWQI) Report to Congress—typically has no data on fish kills, although it does contain exhaustive figures on overall miles of rivers and acres of lakes “impaired” by agriculture and other sources. (“Impairment” is a flexible term for pollution that EPA brandishes to advertise alleged progress while frequently warning “we need to do more.”) In the eight NWQI reports issued since the 1992 reporting cycle (i.e., all of the reports available online) most inventories contain only vague references such as “Fish kills and foul odors may result if dissolved oxygen is depleted” to quote the 1996 edition, which ran over 200 pages.
EPA’s 1994 NWQI report was the most detailed of all, providing a half-page section on fish kills including the following highlights:
Fish kill reporting is a voluntary process; States, Tribes, and other jurisdictions are not required to report on how many fish kills occur, or what might have caused them. … fish kills are an important consideration in water quality assessments. In 1994, 32 States, Tribes, and other jurisdictions reported a total of 1,454 fish kill incidents. These States attributed 737 of the fish kills to pollution, 257 to unknown causes, 263 to natural conditions (such as low flow and high temperatures), and 229 kills to ambiguous causes.
Even the above blurb provides nowhere near the intensity of EPA’s wrath on any specific industry that violates some permit condition that may lead to no environmental harm. A taste of EPA’s industrial antipathy can be seen in their annual enforcement results which rarely claim actual ecological damage—if you look past their headlines on ambiguous “pollution” triggering large fines.
EPA’s most recent National Water Quality Inventory report issued in 2017 makes no mention of fish kills—even though presumably hundreds of fish mortality events occurred based on available state data and past U.S. activity. This is the best EPA can provide, with an $8.3 billion budget and 15,400 staffers as of FY 2017.
Considering the evidence of EPA literature and public statements, it would be generous to say that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency does not take fish kills to be a priority. A more candid assessment would be that EPA leadership are embarrassed of America’s routine fish kills and would rather talk about topics like “climate change” or vague “industrial contamination” that offer easy opportunities to boost their profile.
Back during the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, which began on April 20, 2010, attitudes were different (see Smithsonian’s fairly balanced account for key details). At that time a few dead fish on the beach (often nowhere near any oil) were a national sensation. EPA made great commotion over this event as well—although not solely for reasons of potential fish kills that never materialized in significant numbers. Fish that died from unknown causes made for weeks of theatrics at FoxNews, CNN and MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow Show, here from May 2010:
At that time, the rest of Legacy media were just as committed in their feigned concern for unsightly oil slicks primarily far out at sea and a few dead animals along the shore. When Gulf waters and beaches cleaned up within a few months, national attention on fish kills dissipated as well.
As noted above, the state of Florida has experienced scores of massive fish kills, some of which can be viewed here. Unfortunately, none of those photos say what caused mortality. One major fish kill in Florida that local activists attribute to both agriculture and sewage is shown here. While there is certainly a time for viewing photos of dead fish, I’m fully aware of the shock value that environmental groups exploit for purpose of emotional fundraising campaigns. Since that is not my intention with this article, I’ve decided to only provide the two links within this paragraph. Many more pictures of fish killed by farm pollution pop up briefly in local news, with the standard trite excuses, then become quickly forgotten.
One of the more common diversions offered by state officials is the claim that any given fish kill may possibly be attributed to “natural” causes. Aquatic algae and reduced oxygen conditions are indeed “natural” to some extent, as state tourism officials often suggest. But the millions of tons of synthetic chemicals that feed vast algae blooms along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts are about as natural as leaded gasoline. Even the worst pro-industry shills in the 1960s had the decency to refrain from playing the “natural” card—which is technically true (but also misleading) for oil, lead, mercury and other industrial pollutants, as well as tobacco and asbestos.
Officials in Ohio are at least making superficial efforts to curb the most reckless practices at feedlots in their state. In Ohio, the act of “putting manure on fields before heavy rains” is now illegal according to the article below, although it’s not clear how such an arbitrary pre-crime can be enforced. A 2017 article from the Associated Press leads off with:
The operators of three agriculture businesses have been told to pay more than $30,000 for three large fish kills that Ohio’s natural resources department says were caused by livestock manure spread on fields.
Statewide figures on fish kills for Florida, Ohio and most other states seem unavailable.
The state of Maryland—ground zero for farm pollution causing a large “dead zone” in the Chesapeake Bay each summer—produces an annual report on fish kills which downplays agriculture. Their latest report credits “natural causes… including oxygen depletion”, “fishing discards” and unknown sources for the majority of their 62 fish kill events observed in 2016. One telling statement from the Maryland report:
As schools of menhaden [native feedstocks for larger game fish] became smaller and less plentiful in the Chesapeake Bay, the number and magnitude of menhaden kills has dropped.
“America’s Dairyland” of Wisconsin collects rudimentary statewide data on fish kills, but is mainly focused on trying to find suitable targets to blame for their 502 reported events of fish “die-offs… distributed over 359 different lakes” between 2004 and 2014, according to state and federally funded research published in Nature magazine last summer. Staff at USA Today promoted this effort in an article headlined “Global warming could mean fewer fish for sport fishing, more die-offs across US.” Despite Wisconsin being the nation’s second leading dairy manure producer (behind California)—neither USA Today nor Nature magazine made a single mention of manure, fertilizer or agriculture in those articles.
For curiosity, I looked at Wikipedia. Their Fish Kill page is very sparse, with no U.S. fish kill events reported since 2011. From web searches of USGS, NOAA and U.S. Fish & Wildlife, it does not appear that any federal agency is tracking nationwide fish kills in any organized fashion. The few states that do regularly report on fish kills (such as Maryland and North Carolina) show little interest for incriminating powerful agribusiness groups or harming their own tourism revenues. The farm state of Iowa is one exception to this trend, attributing agriculture to a plurality of its 938 total recorded fish kill events involving an estimated 12 million fish since 1981.
With U.S. sport fishing being an allegedly $115 billion industry supporting about 830,000 jobs (according to Bassmaster, whose economic multipliers may be a bit exaggerated) and coastal tourism and genuine environmental concerns affecting tens of millions of Americans, the scantly reported problem of widespread fish kills seems to present an unmet need for accurate information.
Autocratic federal agencies like EPA that write, enforce and judge their own rules have demonstrated an inability to handle this task—which should surprise no one including Congress that set up this no-checks/no-balances system. Leaving an agency like EPA to report on its own progress—on fish kills or anything else—is a guaranteed recipe for abuse.
Any aspiring university research department or perhaps a few organized private citizens could provide a vital service here. I know at least one experienced environmental professional that may be willing to assist in such an endeavor.
Those who follow environmental topics in the news may notice the profound absence of interest among Legacy media on the topics of beach closures, government sewage dumping and all the damage caused by farm pollution. On the surface, this may appear surprising, since major media ostensibly like to hype environmental issues. But that’s only when a convenient industrial villain can be targeted (i.e., climate change, “fracking,” anything with a smokestack). In those cases, no evidence of actual harm is needed. Gratuitous repetition of vague terms like “toxic” or “contamination” coupled with “industrial” passes for reporting nowadays.
From my involvement in the eco-business and my general interest in media history, I find the pattern here to be consistent with everything else I’ve seen. Major media again fail to report on anything critical of their federal benefactors, preferring instead to pummel only profitable businesses.
Independent voices that challenge the prevailing beliefs are either shunned or silenced—on all topics, not just green matters. Coveted FCC broadcasting licenses, press credentials, exclusive interviews and rich corporate advertising don’t go to independent reporters who buck the system. The common complaint of a “liberal” media is secondary (at best) to those core issues.
The pattern I notice among Old Guard media, academics and other recipients of government favor is the frequent use of crude and inflammatory language towards groups they despise (“industrial polluters”, “racists”, “terrorists” etc.) while using only soft platitudes and layered honorifics (“family farmer”, “African American”, “service member”, “senior citizen” etc.) towards groups they’ve been told to revere. That is to say, the vast majority of our ruling elites have no legitimate standards, just complex double standards.
When Rage and Favoritism Lead to Blindness. Example: Chesapeake Bay
Most of the major Green Lobby organizations in America have conditioned their followers to hate “industrial polluters” as a form of pure evil that exists for the sole purpose of hurting other people. As tax-favored “non-profits,” they rely on charitable donations—not producing anything of real value or creative problem solving. Years of practice have shown that scapegoating corporate villains triggers a significant number of people to make emotional decisions on what causes to support. As of 2014, the top 10 organizations in the Green Movement “collectively have 15 million members, 2,000-plus staffers and annual budgets of more than $525 million,” according to environmental journalists at Inside Climate News. Most of these groups relentlessly bash “corporate polluters” out of reflex.
Decades of scapegoating doesn’t just hurt private industry. It masks widespread public dysfunction. This phenomenon is true of the entire genre of government pollution, but I’ll focus here on the example of Chesapeake Bay. As the nation’s largest estuary, its watershed covers 64,000 square miles in parts of six states and is home to 18 million people, nearly 500 wastewater treatment facilities and over 83,000 farm operations. EPA’s research has long recognized nutrient overloads from agriculture and sewage discharges to be the dominant threats to these once-bountiful waters.
After about 35 years of federal and multi-state activity on their Chesapeake Bay Program— including sewage treatment plant upgrades, thousands of farm “management plans,” tighter controls on industry—political leaders have barely put a dent in Chesapeake’s high nutrient concentrations or its severely low levels of dissolved oxygen during the summer (NPR graphic: scroll down for Bay aerial plots of 1988 vs. 2015). As a result of farm pollution and sewage discharges, stocks of everything from the area’s famous blue crabs to striped bass are still are suffering—an embarrassment that officials frequently minimize. Buried on the government’s Chesapeake Bay Program website, they admit that blue crab harvests have dropped from around 100 million pounds per year in the early 1990s to only 35 million pounds in 2014.
The non-profit watchdog group Chesapeake Bay Foundation changed its overall grade for 13 indicators in the Bay from a C- in 2016 to a D+ in 2018, vaguely associated with an increased rainfall in some areas within the watershed. The Baltimore Sun reported this downgrade with a headline blaming “a massive assault from record rainfall.” As usual, the real culprits of this national disgrace got only gentle encouragement.
The above headline from January 2019 is common in Legacy media, where stenographers and scribes are groomed how to properly communicate by their political superiors. In reality, precipitation from the sky—even in the most urbanized areas in the U.S.—is very clean. Rain that contacts drips of oil, gasoline, metallic break dust and garbage strewn on city streets leaves a greater impact. Stormwater that lands on mechanically plowed agricultural fields soaked with ammonia, nitrates, phosphates and rotting animal wastes causes even more harm.
Actually, the next section will explain why conditions in the Chesapeake Bay are almost certainly worse than EPA is admitting.
Dubious Standards and Open Questions: The “Dead Zones” (plural) in the Gulf, etc.
While animal manure from “factory feedlots” receive what little attention environmentalists offer towards agribusiness, the polluted fertilizer runoff from U.S. cropland is probably more harmful, based on nutrient tonnages applied and known discharges to public waters. But EPA and USDA don’t bother to quantify damage for such things. If you hunt for it, other data are available to provide some insights to the magnitude of farm pollution.
The two federal agencies taking the lead, so to speak, on pollution in the Gulf of Mexico are the U.S. Geological Survey and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. According to the USGS’s 2000 report on delivery of nitrogen to the Gulf of Mexico (Supplementary Info, Table 4) agricultural fertilizers and livestock waste deliver 755,000 tons per year of nitrogen at the Mississippi River’s outlet to the Gulf. That amount dwarfs all other natural and man-made sources, which combined for 425,000 tons per year of the pollutant. Fertilizers delivered more than three times as much nitrogen to the Gulf as livestock waste, according to USGS. With more and more fertilizers building up on U.S. cropland every year, there’s no reason to think the amount of chemical runoff is declining.
As a result, the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico any given summer now grows to roughly the size of New Jersey or Massachusetts, depending on rainfall and other factors during the year. EPA’s website for the Gulf of Mexico Hypoxia Task Force provides an aerial graphic of the current dead zone size (not reproduced here) and the following historical bar chart:
If you check the EPA chart (above) and graphic (prior link), you’ll notice that both draw attention to the 2 mg/L dissolved oxygen standard. Here’s where things start to get more curious regarding the many acknowledged “dead zones.” From time to time, agencies show some independence to establish their credentials or perhaps better serve the public. One such example on the topic of aquatic dead zones comes again from the U.S. Geological Survey.
The USGS website for Dissolved Oxygen and Water shows the much broader aerial graphic of the Gulf of Mexico dead zones (plural) below and without the political qualifiers. The caption is from USGS.
People may notice that USGS does not arbitrarily draw attention to the dubious “standard” of 2 mg/L dissolved oxygen. There’s a good reason for that: it’s completely ridiculous. Also noteworthy, “bottom waters” are still shaded green (higher dissolved oxygen) were cities and farm pollution don’t make an impact. That same USGS website states:
The oxygen content of surface waters of normal salinity in the summer is typically more than 8 milligrams per liter (8 mg/L); when oxygen concentrations are less than 2 mg/L, the water is defined as hypoxic (CENR, 2000). The hypoxia kills many organisms that cannot escape, and thus the hypoxic zone is informally known as the “dead zone.”
Here’s where the dead zone in Chesapeake Bay comes back into the picture. Game fish like striped bass need at least 5 mg/L of oxygen to survive, so the “safe” areas reported by the government’s Chesapeake Bay Program (and elsewhere) are actually polluted. Over at NOAA (which is not part of the Chesapeake Bay Program) they flatly state: “Striped bass require at least 5 mg/L of dissolved oxygen.” Otherwise, they swim to waters near the surface seeking higher DO levels, but those waters are warmer and cause additional stress to the fish.
The previously cited NPR article with Chesapeake Bay images of dissolved oxygen for 1988 vs. 2015 has a legend with natural blue regions (most of the Bay) defined as “More than 3 mg/L: Acceptable.” This probably comes from some protocol from an agency that helps manage the Bay cleanup, but even that’s not clear. NPR’s institutional biases may have influenced their headline that “… Proposed EPA Cuts Threaten Success” and the rest of their scripted reporting. The skewed assessments of “Chesapeake Bay… Success” and mostly “acceptable” water conditions—fed by whatever activists and lobbies (many are featured positively) handed NPR this rosy bill of goods—are misleading. So are related EPA standards.
The change from a 5 mg/L minimum requirement to an “acceptable” 3 mg/L oxygen content in water might not seem like a big deal, but that’s a 40 percent drop from an already low baseline standard. A similar drop in normal oxygen levels in air will give most people “altitude sickness” of headaches and fatigue within a few hours. Bigger decreases in oxygen air concentration for sustained periods can cause brain damage or death to humans. One would expect fish to respond in a somewhat similar fashion to being exposed to low-oxygen water.
For agencies to claim that 3 mg/L oxygen content in water is “acceptable” (no further comment) for fish is disingenuous. Drawing attention only to extremely distressed (basically “dead”) areas with less than 2 mg/L of dissolved oxygen is even worse. But to set realistic environmental standards protective of aquatic life would dramatically expose their own failure in correcting conditions around the nation. Reporting on what you “manage” has that conflicting nature.
Despite these weak standards on water quality, EPA staffers let slip: “Over 166 dead zones have been documented nationwide, affecting waterbodies like the Chesapeake Bay and the Gulf of Mexico.” At least on that web page, the 164 other “dead zones” received no further comment. A separate EPA website on hypoxia provides three small photos and a simple statewide summary count of “hypoxic ecosystems” totaling over 400 in various coastal and Great Lakes states (e.g., 108 dead ecosystems in Florida, 39 in Texas, 30 in Maryland, 27 in New York, 19 in California, etc.). Lacking an industrial villain, this man-made fiasco prompts little enthusiasm. EPA didn’t bother to even attach a location name or human face to any of these over 400 ecological wastelands. Just a number and useless technical verbiage.
By any objective measure, environmental damage in Chesapeake Bay, the Gulf of Mexico, Green Bay Wisconsin and elsewhere are probably worse than state and federal agencies are letting on. The settled-upon standard from EPA for the Gulf of Mexico and other coastal waters of 2 mg/L dissolved oxygen only designates the threshold for total environmental collapse.
This raises the question that’s apparently never asked in public: What about near-death oxygen levels (say, 3 or 4 mg/L) which are still signs of pollution? As things stand, federal bureaucrats promote the idea: if polluted waters don’t rapidly kill most aquatic life, then the waters are totally safe.
As noted above, a few mavericks at these agencies occasionally let some light eek out from the cracks. Those are rare exceptions that get lost in the colorful graphics on Gulf of Mexico dissolved oxygen mapping and loud theatrics about climate fluctuations.
Some of the questions that federal agencies should be more forthcoming on:
- What amount of nitrogen and phosphorous would be expected to reach the Chesapeake Bay and the Gulf of Mexico in natural conditions (pre-European arrival)?
- How big would the estimated dead zones in the Chesapeake Bay and Gulf of Mexico be in (say) 1600, 1700, 1800, 1900, and 1950?
- What are the natural levels of oxygen in these waters?
- What are the oxygen levels needed for game fish (striped bass, tuna, mackerel, grouper, red snapper, etc.) populations to be sustainable or to increase populations?
- How will various low-oxygen levels (say, 3 or 4 mg/L) effect game fish? Will 10% or 50% of juveniles or adults die within a few days, etc.?
Among the hundreds of government studies done on all things environmental, I would hope someone has data or estimates on these fairly basic questions.
The Other Side of EPA Policy: Arbitrary Harassment of Private Industry
This final section is important for a couple reasons. With any attention on “unregulated” (more accurately “unlimited”) pollution sources, conservatives and libertarians are guaranteed to cry FOUL! No more rules! Environmentalist whacko! … and usual stuff like that. Without any counterweight from liberals (infatuated only with industrial pollution) to offset those predictable right-wing pressures, any prospect for reasonable dialogue quickly vanishes.
Add in the Farm Lobby’s staunch opposition to any form of environmental responsibility and EPA’s conflict of interest on limiting government sewage discharges, then you start to see why the LONG, LONG standing issues of farm pollution and sewage dumping have gotten almost zero traction in the past. Hence, the fix we’re still in almost 50 years after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was established.
The legitimate concerns against federal overreach must also be put into proper context. For anyone not already aware of the hyper-legalism that smothers American business, I’ll offer a few highlights. Once again, colleges and Legacy media have largely failed to educate the public on these matters.
U.S. manufacturers and energy producers face a daily barrage of bureaucratic excess, with countless thousands of “you must” and “you shall” mandates, self-incriminating “compliance” reports and an assumption of guilt baked in to every individual permit needed before any facility can operate. (Biased officials who have never worked in the private sector often sugar coat these abuses as “regulations,” as if they’re just handing out free bran muffins to keep industrial operations flowing smoothly.)
To give an example of EPA “regulations” enabled by one part of one law, in the Maximum Achievable Control Technology (MACT) Standards (also called NESHAPs) developed from the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990, the words “must” and “shall” occur over 34,000 times. These include mandates how a company “must submit … must notify … must install” and excruciating details on what incriminating (often useless) records you “shall keep … shall provide.” It’s up to any given industry to figure out which few hundreds or thousands of those confusing rules apply to their operations. Failure to obey any one of those 34,000 mandates, as applicable, makes a business owner guilty of violating the entire “Clean Air Act” in the judgment of EPA enforcers and their media megaphones.
A prior edition of that same law (still in effect) offers another good example. The Clean Air Act of 1970 hatched something called New Source Review (NSR), a giveaway to high-polluting “existing” facilities like TVA’s coal-fired power plants, as long as they didn’t engage in the murky definition of a process “modification.” In other words, the grandfathering of mega-polluters while punishing new facilities with much stricter standards. As with the MACT rules, we see hyper-legalism spawned by political favoritism showing its ugly face in a big way. As of 2008, a brochure for training services at a New Source Review Workshop (run by a former EPA chief of their NSR Section) boasted:
“This course… focuses on how the most important of the over 13,300 pages of policy documents and related materials issued since 1974 interpret and affect the NSR rules.”
These two examples just relate to portions of one law regarding air pollution. That doesn’t count complex rules for other air permitting requirements, hazardous waste management, remediation, wastewater and stormwater discharges, “due diligence” guidelines for commercial property transfers, the pliable genres of toxicology and air dispersion modeling, and endless written “plans” to address risks, spills, pollution prevention, contingencies, etc.
No one will probably ever know how many thousands of manufacturing facilities have been chased out of the country—to less bureaucratic Mexico or China—partly because of these burdens. That unnecessary complexity is why remaining industries hire “environmental consultants” like me and any of my 125,000 colleagues in this business. Here are the 23 largest environmental consulting firms as of 2014—nearly all of which rake in well over $100 million per year according to Engineering News-Record (subscription required for annual revenue details). Most of those firms are eagerly cashing in on “greenhouse gas” permitting and reporting. Most (if not all) of them—acting as deputy EPA enforcers of mandatory “deviation” reporting—would rather not rock the boat on government pollution.
Considering the evidence, I conclude that: EPA and environmental experts have no idea what “pollution” is. But they are sure, whatever private-sector companies are doing is always wrong and must be changed, regardless of inconvenience and with only cursory thought to cost. Meanwhile, any amount of demonstrated government pollution is not really “pollution,” but an opportunity for more public spending and photo ops with smiling children.
All of this is a far cry from setting and enforcing a few objective LIMITS or thresholds on pollution, then giving people the flexibility to achieve those standards as deemed most practical. In other words, this is not a false option of Big Government or No Government.
I can speak from over 25 years of experience that the entire legal framework of eco-purity in America is opposed to clear and sensible pollution limits for the government to monitor and enforce. Instead, we have thousands of “must” and “shall” mandates, complicated self-monitoring and self-reporting. Add to that the unintelligible classifications of big/small, major/minor, new/existing/modified, actual/potential emissions and countless other absurdities for pestering every sector of private industrial activity.
The cost-benefit analysis on all that eco-busywork is dubious at best. Despite widespread progress on most other forms of industrial pollution since the 1960s and 70s, the script has never gone back for overdue editing.
Under the guise of “environmental concern,” we routinely hear calls for outlawing the internal combustion engine, dogmatic opposition to nuclear and hydroelectric power, paranoid protesting of a simple pipe in the ground (the Keystone oil conduit that greens hated, to the benefit of a billionaire railroad oligarch), lawsuits to strangle any new refinery or coal power plant and efforts to throttle all productive industry with an encyclopedia of self-incriminatory mandates. Delving further into the abyss, we hear cries to put DuPont and Monsanto out of business for the crimes of creating enormously beneficial non-stick Teflon frying pans and the food enhancing agricultural herbicide Roundup, and now demands to extract trillions in wealth from electricity consumers over unproven claims of climate crisis.
Yet when it comes to major problems from government sewage dumping and socialized farm pollution—every effort is made to offer ridiculous excuses, provide blanket exemptions and often give taxpayer money to clean up their increasingly significant damage.
Radical environmentalists cannot be blamed for all these distortions and oversights. Even among the broader political landscape, entrenched prejudices and denial now abound at both ends of the spectrum. Absentee ownership and weak corporate leadership played major roles in allowing private-sector misdeeds to occur in the first place; these qualities now encourage government pollution and business harassment to proceed without effective opposition.
Conservatives and libertarians might actually gain some credibility if they offered any valid alternative to green hysteria other than “do nothing” and wait for the “miracle of the marketplace” to cure everything. That ideological blindness pushes millions of youths and moderates right into the arms of anti-business fanatics, who unfortunately now dominate most environmental discussions. Liberals might occasionally join the side of “progress” if they dare to question their ancient orthodoxies against all things private and in defense of all things centralized.
The public beach closures, sick swimmers, poisoned drinking water wells, routine fish kills and major aquatic dead zones indicate failure across wide segments of our ruling establishment. The present dysfunction won’t improve until we address the underlying legalistic hypocrisy that spawned these conditions in the first place.