EPA Evaluates Ocean Acidification as a Threat to Water Quality Under Clean Water Act

Action Marks First Step Toward Regulation of Carbon Dioxide Emissions Under the Clean Water Act

The United States Environmental Protection Agency announced steps to protect U.S. waters from the threat of ocean acidification under the Clean Water Act. Today, EPA issued a notice of data availability to be published in the Federal Register that calls for information and data on ocean acidification that the agency will use to evaluate water-quality criteria under the Clean Water Act.

The notice responded to a formal petition and threatened litigation from the Center for Biological Diversity that sought to compel the agency to impose stricter pH criteria for ocean water quality and publish guidance to help states protect American waters from ocean acidification. EPA’s notice marks the first time that the Clean Water Act will be invoked by the agency to address ocean acidification.

“Ocean acidification is likely the greatest threat to the health of our oceans and is occurring at a frightening rate,” said Miyoko Sakashita, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity’s oceans program. “The federal government has finally acknowledged that ocean acidification is a threat; now it must take the next step and fully implement the Clean Water Act to protect our nation’s waters from ‘the other CO2 problem.’ ”

EPA’s water-quality criteria are relevant to preventing ocean acidification because they are the measure against which many states gauge the need to impose regulations on pollution. The notice states that EPA’s “recommended criteria provide guidance to States and authorized Tribes in adopting water quality standards that ultimately provide a basis for controlling discharges or releases of pollutants.” Here, that could eventually translate into controls on CO2.

The oceans absorb CO2 to the tune of 22 million tons each day, and this changes seawater chemistry, causing it to become more acidic. Ocean acidification is emerging as a primary threat to our oceans. To prevent the worst impacts of ocean acidification, CO2 emissions will need to be reduced from current levels, requiring immediate regulatory action.

Ocean acidification is degrading seawater quality, with adverse impacts on marine ecosystems. The primary known consequence of ocean acidification is that it impairs the ability of marine animals to build and maintain their protective shells and skeletons. For example, ocean acidification threatens to erode away coral reefs within our lifetime. Nearly every marine animal with a shell is vulnerable to the impacts of ocean acidification. According to the notice, “[i]mpacts to shellfish and other calcifying organisms that represent the base of the food web may have implications for larger organisms that depend on shellfish and other calcifying organisms for prey.”

In 2007, the Center filed a formal petition asking EPA to impose stricter pH criteria for ocean water quality and publish guidance to help states protect U.S. waters from ocean acidification. The federal Clean Water Act requires the EPA to update water-quality criteria to reflect the latest scientific knowledge. Since the agency developed the pH standard back in 1976, an extensive body of research has developed on the impacts of carbon dioxide on the oceans. Now, EPA has agreed to evaluate this pH criterion in light of the new information on ocean acidification.

“We must take immediate action to address ocean acidification or the impacts will be catastrophic,” said Sakashita. “Fortunately, we need not wait for new legislation addressing CO2 emissions, as the Clean Water Act already provides us with important tools to confront this problem.”

EPA is accepting data and information on ocean acidification for 60 days. If the EPA strengthens the pH water-quality criterion for oceans, then the Clean Water Act requires states to adopt a water-quality standard at least as protective as the one established by the EPA. Here, stronger water-quality standards for pH could translate into measures that regulate CO2, which is causing ocean acidification.

More information is available from the Center for Biological Diversity at http://www.biologicaldiversity.org/campaigns/ocean_acidification/index.html.

Miyoko Sakashita, CENTER for BIOLOGICAL DIVERSITY, 14 April 2009. Article.

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