Washington state faces lawsuit over ocean acidification

Washington state has been established as a test case for regulating greenhouse gases through the federal Clean Water Act.

A lawsuit brought yesterday by the Center for Biological Diversity is the first legal case to assert that the Environmental Protection Agency must take action under a water law to reduce carbon dioxide in the air and ultimately save sea creatures.

“Ocean acidification is global warming’s evil twin,” said Miyoko Sakashita, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity in San Francisco. “The EPA has a duty under the Clean Water Act to protect our nation’s waters from pollution. Today, CO2 is one of the biggest threats to our ocean waters.”
Click here to download the legal filing (PDF 192 kb).

Sakashita told me that Washington state was chosen as the first case because studies have revealed particular problems with ocean acidity along the West Coast. Also, the Washington Department of Ecology recently updated its list of impaired water bodies without mentioning the acidity problem. And EPA endorsed that list.

A study published in the journal “Science” suggests that the upwelling of ocean waters along the West Coast could increase acidification faster than other parts of the county.

A separate study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences confirms links between acidity in the ocean and atmospheric carbon dioxide. That study also describes effects on the ecosystem, including a bleak future for shelled organisms, including mussels.

“Our results indicate that pH decline is proceeding at a more rapid rate than previously predicted in some areas, and that this decline has ecological consequences for near-shore benthic ecosystems,” states a summary of the report.

Scientists have expressed concerns that ocean acidification could have serious consequences for a variety of shelled creatures, including corals, crabs, sea stars, sea urchins and some plankton. High acid levels can prevent the formation of shell material and could disrupt the food web.

For background information, see a EurekAlert from last May. I also discussed the issue in a Water Ways entry in November.

The Clean Water Act requires states to identify impaired waters that fail to meet water-quality standards. In Washington, the Department of Ecology assumes jurisdiction over enforcement of the law. In January, EPA approved Washington’s list of impaired waters, also called the 303(d) list, without mentioning acidification.

“Ocean acidification is not some distant threat that can be shunted off to future decision-makers; it has already arrived, and we have to acknowledge and deal with the problem right now,” said Sakashita in a news release. “EPA has all the evidence it needs to act to begin protecting our waters from ocean acidification. Further delay is simply not justified.”

Sandy Howard, spokeswoman for Ecology, said her agency is not ducking from the issue. In fact, Gov. Chris Gregoire is one of the nation’s leaders on climate change. The problem, she told me, is that the agency never received the precise data to show that the oceans are impaired by acidity.

Ecology’s response to Sakashita’s letter (PDF 16 kb) includes this comment:

“Our state law requires that actual data be used for 303(d) listing purposes, rather than broader studies and assumptions about the status of waters. Ecology reviewed the studies that were submitted in previous correspondence and could find no monitoring data relevant to specific marine water body segments in Washington.”

Some of the more recent studies, which are still fairly general, may not have been available when Ecology completed its list, and ocean acidity is not easy to measure. Howard said Ecology is open to reconsidering the acidity issue for its next impaired waters list.

When a water body is listed as impaired, Ecology normally proceeds to identify the sources of pollution and establish limits for each source or group of sources. In the case of acidity, the state faces a major problem, Howard noted, because many of the sources of carbon dioxide are likely to be in foreign countries, where the state has no authority to act.

Sakashita argues that under the Clean Water Act, the EPA should take steps to limit the amount of carbon dioxide going into the air.

Sakashita’s letter to Ecology — as well as other letters and responses — can be found on a Web page addressing Ecology’s Water Quality Assessment.

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