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The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has issued an order requiring the state of Minnesota to introduce more stringent regulation on water pollution in wastewater permits.
Federal action came as a response to a petition started by a nonprofit environmental law firm several years ago. The organization accused the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) of failing to implement strict limits for water pollutant discharge and to ensure effective protection of the state's water resources. The move is unprecedented in Minnesota and is quite an unusual measure on a national scale, since states are typically given the power to regulate their own wastewater management.
However, in this particular case, federal officials found that the state of Minnesota had been too lenient in enforcing regulation. The main problem, as described in the petition, was phosphorus, a potentially hazardous chemical that causes a boost in algae growth in lakes and rivers. Algae can be toxic and can damage aquatic life, the petition explained, accusing the state of inefficient municipal wastewater treatment.
Kris Sigford, an attorney for the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, commented that the EPA intervention was a clear signal that Minnesota needed more restrictive limits. The state is finally going to have limits that could ensure water quality is being protected and those limits will be taken into account when issuing water permits, he added.
The problem started with a wastewater treatment plant in Alexandria. It serves about 23,000 people and discharges water into Lake Winona, which had a long history of problems with phosphorus. The issue was further aggravated by carp population that stirred up the pollutant from the bottom, where it collects in the muck. Lake Winona also feeds into a chain of popular recreational lakes, thus bringing the phosphorus into other water bodies. The Minnesota Supreme Court ruled in favor of the state in a court suit, which eventually led to the petition.
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The MPCA has to respond to the federal order within 30 days. Officials are currently studying the order and preparing their report. According to Wendy Turri, MPCA municipal wastewater manager, the state had been working with the EPA for quite some time and had already implemented changes to phosphorus regulation. If the state fails to comply with the order, the EPA will be entitled to write all pollutant discharge permits in Minnesota to as many as 1,000 municipalities, businesses and other organizations that may discharge pollutants, the Minneapolis Star Tribune reported.
Minnesota is not the only state that has been accused of enforcing lax requirements. Al Ettinger, a Chicago attorney representing various environmental groups on water quality issues, claimed that state regulation of pollutants, especially phosphorus and nitrogen, is a serious problem across the United States. Similar petitions launched in at least ten states are currently being reviewed by the EPA. Most of them raise concerns that state regulators are not doing their best to enforce the Clean Water Act. Intervention from the EPA has already led to changes in regulation in Iowa, Illinois and Florida, Ettinger stated.
What EPA is doing is actually telling states that citizens have the right to complain and if their concerns are not addressed the federal agency will have the right to act, he told the Minneapolis Star Tribune.