Riverkeeper To Sue EPA Over Shenandoah Algae

Group Says Clean Water Act Not Being Enforced

Posted: August 9, 2014

HARRISONBURG — Shenandoah Riverkeeper, a nonprofit organization that works to promote clean water and public access to it, filed a notice this week of its intent to sue the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The notice centers on claims that unhealthy algae levels in the Shenandoah River have gone ignored by the state and, ultimately, the federal government.

The group claims the EPA has failed to recognize and act on what it calls “severe algae blooms” located in the Shenandoah and its tributaries, including the North and South forks, which form in Rockingham County.

“The state writes a plan for our water. It identifies problems, identifies the sources of these problems, and then it writes a plan to correct the problem,” said Jeff Kelble, president of Potomac Riverkeeper. Kelble served as the Shenandoah’s Riverkeeper for eight years before taking the leadership position with its parent organization this summer.

In a 2010 effort to clean up the Chesapeake Bay, the EPA announced the bay’s total maximum daily load, a pollution diet meant to limit nutrients and sediments that enter the watershed and eventually the bay. Biologists say that excess nutrient levels fuel the growth of algae faster than ecosystems can handle, harming water quality and starving fish and other aquatic animals of the oxygen they need to survive. 

Against criticism from some of those affected, who that claim that the EPA overreached its authority, the agency mandated that those state governments in the watershed — which includes six mid-  Atlantic states, including Virginia, and Washington, D.C. — reduce the amounts of nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment by 20 to 25 percent by 2025.

Despite those efforts, however, the Shenandoah Riverkeeper maintains that runoff from farms and urban areas are causing the algae to thrive.

The suit is to be directed at the EPA “for its failure to act in the face of this threat,” according to a press release from the nonprofit.

Kelble said he’s worked for four years to get the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality to recognize the troubled waters of the Shenandoah River and to get it included on Virginia’s 303(d) list. These lists designate water bodies that do not meet water quality standards under the federal Clean Water Act.

Under the act, Virginia is required to consider all information about stream impairments when updating this list.

“I’ve been working for years to get the Shenandoah River recognized on this list because it would then be protected under the Clean Water Act,” Kelble said. “What we’re seeking with this lawsuit is a recognition of this algae problem and a plan to fix it.”

The Shenandoah River comprises about one quarter of the Potomac watershed, which provides drinking water and recreation use for millions of residents in the state. The river and its tributaries have experienced year-round algae blooms for almost a decade, according to Shenandoah Riverkeeper.

“The problem with algae is bigger in Rockingham County in the forks than it is anywhere,” Kelble said. “That’s primarily where our effort is focused on.”

Kelble said green algae that naturally occur in rivers can be digested by small animals that have special enzymes in their mouth. The trouble starts, he says, when it’s too warm for the green algae to grow and a more pervasive form grows.

“This blue-green algae we’re getting is the hell of algae,” Kelble said. “It feeds off nutrients like phosphorus in the waters and grows rapidly.”

Adding to the river system’s problems is the proximity of farmland. Runoff from manure on agricultural lands supercharges the waters with the nutrients the blue-green algae thrive on, according to Kelble.

But he doesn’t put the blame only on agriculture in the region.

“The fault isn’t solely on the rural areas, though,” he said. “Urban areas contribute to the runoff problem into our streams, too. We need to begin a process to heal our river.”

If the EPA has not responded to the notice or addressed the issue within 60 days, the Shenandoah Riverkeeper and Potomac River Keeper Inc. will move forward with a lawsuit in federal court.

The EPA would not comment on the lawsuit notice, and Bill Hayden, a spokesman for the DEQ, said his agency also would not discuss the potential litigation.

Shenandoah Riverkeeper is part of the Waterkeeper Alliance, a New York-based water quality advocacy organization that includes 200 member groups worldwide.

Contact Megan Applegate at 574-6286 or mapplegate@dnronline.com

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