Iowa Public Television


U.S. Waterways Under Duress

posted on March 29, 2013

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Thousands of gallons of crude oil spilled in western Minnesota Wednesday after a train originating in western Canada derailed.

The 94-car Canadian Pacific train was headed south near Parkers Prairie when 14 tankers slipped off the tracks. No one was hurt, and crews were able to control the estimated 20,000 to 30,000 gallon spill. Because the ground was still frozen, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency said the oil poses no threat to local waters.

But the mishap could play a role in the ongoing debate on the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which would transport crude from oil sands in Canada to refineries in Texas. Environmentalists say the pipeline could be prone to spills and further development of the carbon-laden oil sands would contribute to global warming. The State Department, on the other hand, found that when it comes to climate change, shipping the oil by pipeline would cause less pollution than using rail.

A separate Obama Administration report this week, however, focused less on the POTENTIAL for pollution and more on the REALITY of it.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, more than half of the rivers and streams in the United States are in poor biological health and are not able to support healthy populations of aquatic insects and other creatures.

EPA’s National Rivers and Streams Assessment sampled 2,000 locations in 2008 and 2009. Bodies of water ranging from large rivers to small streams were included in the testing.  

The study found more than 55 percent of the waterways were in poor condition, and only 21 percent of the areas surveyed were in good biological health.

The biggest problem, according to the survey, was high levels of nutrient pollution, caused by phosphorous and nitrogen washing into rivers and streams from farms, sewers and cities.

Phosphorous, a common ingredient in fertilizers and detergents, was found in almost 40 percent of the surveyed area. Another issue came from development – where increased erosion occurred after land was cleared.

According to the EPA, conditions were worst in the East where more than 70 percent of the streams and rivers from the Texas coast to the New Jersey coast were in poor shape.

The healthiest locations were the western mountain states where only 26 percent of the waterways are classified in poor condition.

Testing also revealed other bacteria exceeded thresholds for acceptable levels. High rates of Mercury were found in fish tissue along 13,000 miles of streams.

Mercury is naturally occurring, but it can also enter the environment from coal-burning power plants and from burning hazardous wastes.



Tags: aquatic proection bacteria biological health contamination environment EPA Mercury Mississippi River news stream water