WASHINGTON - The Environmental Protection Agency is exploring
whether to use the Clean Water Act to control greenhouse gas emissions,
which are turning the oceans acidic at a rate that's alarmed some
With climate change legislation stalled in Congress, the Clean Water
Act would serve as a second front, as the Obama administration has
sought to use the Clean Air Act to rein in emissions of carbon dioxide
and other greenhouse gases administratively.
the dawn of the industrial age, acid levels in the oceans have
increased 30 percent. Currently, the oceans are absorbing 22 million
tons of carbon dioxide a day.
other things, scientists worry that the increase in acidity could
interrupt the delicate marine food chain, which ranges from microscopic
plankton to whales.
"There are all sorts of evils associated with
this," said Robert Paine, an emeritus professor of biology at the
University of Washington.
The situation is especially acute along
the West Coast. Northwest winds during the summer cause upwelling,
which brings deep water to the surface along the continental shelf from
Queen Charlotte Sound in British Columbia to Baja California.
water in the deep Pacific Ocean is already more acidic than shallower
water is because it's absorbed the carbon dioxide that's produced as
animals and plants decompose. Some of the deep water in the Pacific
hasn't been to the surface for 1,000 or more years.
By the end of
the century, that deep water is expected to be 150 percent more acidic
than it is now, and as it's brought to the surface by upwelling, it's
exposed to even more carbon dioxide.
"The immensity of the
problem on the West Coast is of serious concern," said Richard Feely,
an oceanographer with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric
Administration in Seattle.
Scientists suspect that acidic water
connected with upwelling killed several billion oyster, clam and mussel
larvae that were being raised at the Whiskey Creek Shellfish Hatchery
near Tillamook on the Oregon coast in the summer of 2008. The hatchery
provides baby shellfish to growers up and down the West Coast.
growers in Washington state, who supply one-sixth of the nation's
oysters, increasingly are concerned that corrosive ocean water entering
coastal bays could threaten their $111 million industry.
levels in other areas of upwelling - off Africa, South America and
Portugal - haven't been studied as intensely as those off the U.S. West
Feely said the oceans' acidity levels were higher
than they'd been at any time in the past 20 million years. Based on
"pretty good" evidence, Feely said, previous high acid levels in the
oceans have caused mass extinctions of marine plants and animals, which
can take 2 million to 10 million years to re-evolve.
"The decisions we make now, over the next 50 years, will be felt over hundreds of thousands of years," he said.
Clean Water Act considers high acidity a pollutant, but the standard
hasn't been updated since it was written in 1976. The act has been used
previously to help combat acid rain and mercury emissions.
the Center for Biological Diversity, a San Francisco-based
environmental group, asked Washington state to use the Clean Water Act
to regulate emissions that add to the ocean's acidity. Under the act,
states have to update their lists of "imperiled waters" every two years
and come up with cleanup plans.
In rejecting the request,
officials at the state's Department of Ecology said that while they
understood the concern about ocean acidification, there wasn't enough
data about specific bodies of water in the state to justify any
When the EPA agreed with Washington state, the Center
for Biological Diversity petitioned the federal agency to start using
the Clean Water Act to control the oceans' rising acidity.
In late March, the EPA published a Federal Register notice seeking public comment on whether the Clean Water Act could be used.
not 100 percent clear where we go here," Suzanne Schwartz, the deputy
director of the EPA's Office of Wetlands, Oceans and Watersheds, said
in an interview. "This is not an easy issue. We are trying to figure
out how to proceed."
Schwartz said the agency was looking to see
whether there were more efficient ways to deal with ocean acidification
than using the Clean Water Act. She also said the cleanup mechanism
used in the act - controlling total daily maximum loads of pollutants -
was aimed more at single sources of pollution than at a broader swath.
are questions about how effective the Clean Water Act will be," she
said. "Honestly, we don't know what we are going to do."
The public comment period lasts 60 days. Schwartz said the EPA should reach some conclusions by November.
Environmentalists said the Clean Water Act would be a "good fit" with the effort to control carbon dioxide emissions.
overall goal is to get regulation of carbon dioxide under the act,"
said Miyoko Sakashita, a lawyer with the Center for Biological
Diversity. "I am encouraged by the step EPA has taken. I would like to
see them step up before we see some of the worst consequences of ocean
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