Tag Archives: nutrient pollution

Toxic Beaches

algal bloom

algal bloom

Beaches in several counties on Florida’s Atlantic Coast are currently closed due to the presence of slimy, malodorous and most importantly toxic algae. The algae growth comes from nutrient laden water being released from Lake Okeechobee to prevent flooding. For the back story read on.

Thomas Malthus was a English cleric who in 1798 published an essay which suggested that human disaster loomed due to over population. He postulated that population grew logarithmically [1,2,4,8,16…] whereas food production only grows arithmetically [1,2,3,4,5…] Malthus predicted famine and starvation were the only possible outcomes without controlling population growth.

The Malthusian Catastrophe of course didn’t come about. Although population is growing logarithmically agricultural practices have been able to sustain burgeoning human populations. Improved tools, irrigation, mechanization, fertilizers, pesticides,plant breeding and ever larger farms averted the catastrophe.

An important agricultural innovation was called the Green Revolution of the 1950s-1960s. Food production was increased by careful selection of plant cultivars which responded favorably to large increases of Nitrogen and Phosphorous fertilizers. Application at rates far above what a crop could actually absorb did result in increased production, but resulted in fertilizer run-off. Increased profits from the crops offset the wasted fertilizer.

But everything goes somewhere. The excess fertilizer washes off the farmland and into adjacent low areas to rivers and lakes, and ultimately into the oceans. Just as the fertilizer increases crop production in farm fields, it increases algal growth in the rivers and lakes.

The Atlantic beaches in South Florida are being fouled with algal blooms from water draining from Lake Okeechobee. The fertilizer laden water is the result of run-off from sugar cane fields which have replaced much of the Everglades.

Besides the inconvenience and costs associated with lost tourism dollars, there is significant secondary environmental damage. After an algae bloom comes an algae crash. As the algae dies off it decomposes aerobically. That means it consumes the Oxygen in the water. The same Oxygen that all the animals require, from the simplest aquatic insects up to and including all the fish.

In certain locales there are “dead zones” with little if any animal life. All the coastal areas of the US, including the Great Lakes, are plagued by dead zones at the mouths of major rivers. They are know scientifically as hypoxic (low-Oxygen) zones and range in size from less than a square mile to over 25,000 square miles. The largest is essentially all of the Baltic Sea. The hypoxic zone at the mouth of the Mississippi is about 7,000 square miles

Around the world there a several hundred of these sterile areas. We have averted the Malthusian Catastrophe for us, but created a catastrophe for the native flora and fauna of the planet.

Karst Topography and the Buffalo National River

In August 2012 a hog factory with as many as 6500 hogs was permitted by the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ). The permitting process employed what is called a Regulation 6 General Permit. In itself this is somewhat unusual as Reg 6 is usually applied to things like wastewater treatment facilities, or construction sites with concerns for managing storm water run-off. There are two types of Reg 6, individual and general. The permit used in this case was the general permit – it has no location or site specific considerations. Along with the general permit is a Nutrient Management Plan (NMP) that allows for the dispersal of agricultural wastes,in this case liquid pig manure, in a fashion which shouldn’t burden the soils with nutrients in excess of what can be absorbed on designated fields.

The problem is that this particular factory is sited on a Mount Judea, AR location on Big Creek, a tributary of the Buffalo National River. If hog manure is spread on the land in excess of the amount that the grasses can absorb, there may be nutrient pollution of Big Creek and and the Buffalo.

In August of 2013 Governor Beebe allocated several hundred thousand dollars to fund a research effort to examine the risk of pollution to the Buffalo. Professor Andrew Sharpley University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture is leading what is called the Big Creek Research and Extension Team (BCRET)

In April 2014 the Pollution Control and Ecology (PC&E) Commission began a moratorium on any new medium to large hog operations (Confined Animal feeding Operations – CAFO.) The data is mixed as to whether pollutants are running off the hay fields where the manure is spread and into Big Creek, then down to the Buffalo.

An important and confounding feature of this hog factory is that the local topography appears to be underlain by karst, a particularly porous limestone that is prone to sink holes, caves and springs. Water and anything in it will move rather rapidly through the subsurface terrain and contaminate locales distant from the site.

Two types of studies have been conducted that confirm the karst. Dr Van Brahana, emeritus Professor of Hydrogeology University of Arkansas, has done dye tracing in the area. He and his coworkers bore a hole in the ground, add a specific dye solution and then monitor the surrounding aquifers for presence of the dye. Dye added in close proximity to the farm spray fields resulted in detection of the dye in 44 remote sites, 14 of which were in caves and springs near the river and 3 in the Buffalo itself.

Professor Todd Halihan, Professor of Hydrogeology Oklahoma State University, utilized another technique to test for the presence of karst. He employed Electrical Resistivity Imaging (ERI) across several transects very close to the ponds holding millions of gallons of liquid hog wastes. He found not just porosity but what he believes to be a major fault which is allowing movement of wastes into the subterranian aquifers, confirming Brhana’s dye studies.

Sadly neither of these studies were conducted by the BCRET, and hence have been ignored by the ADEQ and the PC&E commission which oversees the ADEQ.

Pollution Trading

Pollution caused by a process or industry is a prime example of a negative externality. The pollution producer makes decisions on the cost of and profit from an activity. The cost of pollution is not born by the producer or even the consumer, but rather by impacted individuals or society as a whole.

Society can ban activities which pollute, but this will reduce economic activity which is also detrimental to society. One method to try to meld these opposing ideas is a system of pollution trading. This generally involves governmental establishment of a “tolerable” level of pollution as a cap, then a right to a portion of the allowed pollution can be bought and sold just like a commodity. With a cap in place, pollution can’t get worse, and the cap can be gradually lower to reduce total pollution.

Pollution trading in the United States began with Sulfur Dioxide (SO2,) the principle source of acid rain. The major source of the pollutant is produced by burning coal. In 1990, a cap of 10 million tons per annum was established. Utilities had to buy a “right to” pollute. The cap was then lowered in future years. Companies that could eliminate part or all of their share could sell the pollution rights to other utilities who were unwilling or unable to reduce their emissions.

The assumption is that the environment can deal with a small amount of pollution, as long as it is sufficiently dispersed. For the case of acid rain, alkaline soils or areas with a limestone formations can absorb some acidity. Another type of pollution is nutrient overload. Certain compounds of Nitrogen and Phosphorous are used as fertilizer. If the the fertilizer spread on a crop isn’t absorbed, it runs off and can damage the environment.

Agricultural activities and waste treatment plants in the Chesapeake Bay were seriously damaging water quality. Four states – Pennsylvania, Maryland, West Virginia, and Virginia joined together to create Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDLs) for nutrients across the watershed. The ongoing program through nutrient trading and a gradual reduction of the TMLD, is resulting in improved water quality. There are costs associated with operating a trading program, but it produces positive externalities such as improved fisheries, and increased tourism due to improved water quality.

In 2015 the Arkansas legislature approved ACT 335, to “Authorize the implementation of nutrient water quality trading, credits, offsets, and compliance associations and for other purposes…” The plan is to employ nutrient pollution trading to ultimately improve the water quality in several impaired watersheds across the state. Biannually, the state of Arkansas must submit a list of impaired water bodies known as the 303(d) list. By capping total nutrients leaving the watershed and then slowly lowering the cap, water quality should improve. Market forces will determine how to best reduce nutrient pollution, not stringent regulations. Waste treatment facilities and farms which are successful at limiting nutrients we be able to “sell” their improvements to others not so successful.

Nutrient Pollution is Number One

One generally needn’t go to a dictionary to understand the meaning of the word pollutant, it’s something that doesn’t belong in the air or the water or wherever and may have harmful effects.

A first thought of a water pollutant is usually an industrial chemical spill. A good example of this was the leak from Freedom Industries chemical storage facility in West Virginia. The spill polluted the drinking water for hundreds of thousands of people. Ironically the chemical, methylcyclohexane methanol (MCHM), was used to “clean” coal.

Fossil fuels or there byproducts are also a major water pollutant. Duke Energy in North Carolina burns a lot of coal. The waste coal ash is stored in ponds. A breach of two ponds allowed a toxic brew of heavy metals to coat over 70 miles of the Dan River.

Right here in Arkansas an ExxonMobil oil pipeline flooded a quarter of a million gallons of a substance called diluted bitumen (dilbit.) This is a particularly toxic mixture of a solvent and tar.

The granddaddy of all spills, at least is recent history, was the blowout of a British Petroleum well in the Gulf. There, close to a quarter of a billion gallons of crude oil was released and fouled wetlands and beaches for hundreds of miles from Louisiana to Florida.

Another type of water pollutant is a set of chemical compounds which are referred to as Endocrine Disruptors. The substances can cause bizarre effects in fish and have the possibility to affect humans. Many male black bass in the Potomac River were found to actually be feminized males which were developing immature eggs. The source of the pollutant in this case was the metabolites of human pharmaceutical drugs coming from sewage treatment plants.



The total amount of these pollutants – fossil fuels, industrial chemicals, and wastes of all kinds – pale in comparison to the most common pollutant, nutrients. Nitrogen and Phosphorous, in the forms of their salts Nitrate and Phosphate are polluting fresh water around the globe. Even ocean estuaries are negatively impacted.

Nitrogen and phosphorous are referred to as limiting nutrients, plants don’t grow without them. Excessive amounts in both fresh and salt water cause excessive growth called algal blooms. After time the algae die off. As they decompose they consume oxygen in the water which can smother fish and other aquatic species.

A region near the mouth of the Mississippi River in the Gulf of Mexico is hypoxic, meaning extremely low in dissolved Oxygen. The size of this dead zone varies from year to year but has been as large as 10,000 square miles.

Gulf dead zone

Gulf dead zone

The Buffalo National River is now threatened with its own dead zone. Cargill, America’s largest privately held corporation supplies swine to an industrial hog farm in the watershed of the Buffalo. Up to 6,300 hogs are confined in two buildings just a stone’s throw from Big Creek which flows a scant 6 miles to the Buffalo.

Over 2 million gallons a year of hog feces, laden with Nitrogen and Phosphorous, are spread over a few hundred acres of hay fields. It is not a matter of if but when these nutrients begin to pollute America’s first national river.