Conservation group eyes Clean Water Act as tool in climate fight
By Summit Voice
FRISCO — It’s not clear if anything — besides massive cuts in carbon dioxide emissions — can stop the acidification of oceans, but the Center for Biological Diversity would at least like to see the EPA try to water quality standards as a way to tackle the problem.
The conservation group last week filed a lawsuit against the EPA for failing to address ocean acidification that may already be killing oysters in Oregon and Washington and threatening a wide range of other sea life. The lawsuit challenges the EPA’s decision that seawaters in those two states meet water-quality standards meant to protect marine life despite disturbing increases in acidity.
Oceans are becoming more acidic as they absorb millions of tons of CO2 pollution from the atmosphere. That, in turn, strips seawater of the chemicals marine animals need to build their protective shells and skeletons. The Pacific Northwest is particularly vulnerable; harmful impacts are already being observed in Oregon and Washington as acidified water comes near shore.
Numerous research efforts show the extent of the problem. In late August, researchers with the Alfred Wegener Institute in Germany released a landmark study assessing the global impacts, calling the process of acidification an “ominous change.” Another recent study showed exactly how ocean acidification is dissolving the shells of tiny sea snails in the Southern Ocean.
“Our oceans are taking a deadly turn. If we don’t act fast, we may not have oceans full of life and wonder for much longer,” said Miyoko Sakashita, the Center’s oceans director. “The EPA can help put us back on the right track, but not if it continues to ignore the problem.”
Since about 2005, shellfish hatcheries in Washington and Oregon have experienced massive die-offs of oyster larvae with losses of up to 80 percent of production. Oysters are failing to reproduce in Willapa Bay, Wash., and, elsewhere, corals are growing more sluggishly, while some plankton have thin, weak shells.
“If we stand by and wait for things to get worse, it’ll be too late,” said Sakashita. “We need fast action to save marine diversity, because when the harm of ocean acidification deepens we’ll realize how much we all depend on the ocean.”
Ocean acidification poses long-term, severe problems for ocean ecosystems. It also magnifies the toxins in harmful algal blooms known as red tides. Research suggests that toxins increase five-fold in harmful algae that can poison shellfish, marine mammals, fish, and even cause paralytic shellfish poisoning in people.
“The Pacific Northwest is among the places getting hit hardest at the outset of this crisis. Although some state officials in Washington are taking it seriously, we need the EPA and the Clean Water Act to truly begin addressing it on a broader scale,” said Sakashita.
The Clean Water Act has an important role to play in addressing ocean acidification. The law requires that waters not meeting water-quality standards, including those for acidity, be identified as impaired. In turn, impaired waters can lead to pollution control, which here can result in needed measures to reduce carbon emissions and other pollution that drives acidification.
Similarly, the EPA uses the Clean Water Act for water-quality problems caused by atmospheric mercury and acid rain. Using the Clean Water Act to address ocean acidification complements efforts to reduce CO2 emissions under the Clean Air Act and state initiatives.
- IPCC Report Underscores Need to Address Ocean Acidification (news-oceanacidification-icc.org)
- Cantwell questions NOAA about ocean acidification | The Seattle Times (blogs.seattletimes.com)