Mississippi River facts scarier than Halloween


On a chilly autumn morning on the banks of the Mississippi River, representatives of three organizations—Environment Minnesota, Clean Water Action-Minnesota, and Sustainable Revolution Project—spoke about the frightening agents polluting Minnesota’s lakes, rivers, ponds, and streams. “Halloween is scary, but our waterways should not be,” said Environment Minnesota’s citizen director Arif Hasan.

Environment Minnesota, a statewide, citizen-funded organization, highlighted the most alarming facts about the health of Minnesota’s waters. At the top of the list was the United States Environmental Protection Agency’s 2008 finding that 298 waters in Minnesota are impaired due to mercury pollution from power plants and industrial facilities. A metal known to cause learning disabilities and lower IQs in children, mercury not only taints air and water, but also becomes concentrated in the fish people eat.

One of the more distasteful facts on the list addressed fecal coliform, bacteria found in animal and human feces. Levels of these bacteria in streams in southeastern Minnesota are above the federal water quality standard according to Environment Minnesota. Disease can ensue upon touching water contaminated with these bacteria.

Other harmful substances found in Minnesota’s waterways include perfluorochemicals, which accumulate in fish and cause organ damage in humans, blue-green algae, which is caused by phosphorus and nitrogen runoff, and pharmaceuticals such as antibiotics and antidepressants, which treatment plants cannot filter out of the water.

And due to Minnesota’s extensive use of the land for agriculture, vast amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus—both used in fertilizer—run off farmland and into the water. The algae that feed on these chemicals deplete the water of oxygen. Clean Water Action’s program coordinator Darrel Gerber called these chemicals “monsters that will not die … pollutants we have been fighting since before the Clean Water Act was passed in 1972.” Chemicals draining into the Mississippi have caused a dead zone—an area where little to no life can survive—in the Gulf of Mexico at the Mississippi River delta. Some of Minnesota’s waterways contain levels of phosphorus more than 50 percent higher than seasonal water quality standards, according to Environment Minnesota. “We need to keep our soil and fertilizer on the land, where it does the most good,” Gerber said.

Each speaker focused on effective legislation as the best way to clean up and protect Minnesota’s waters. Agribusiness poses one of the biggest obstacles to clean water legislation, Hasan said. Energy companies are key players as well, according to Mark Weber, an outreach staffer with Sustainable Revolution Project, a local organization committed to solving global problems.

Environment Minnesota is also lobbying the EPA to move forward with two new rules regarding the Clean Water Act and sewage overflow, 24 billion gallons of which goes into the Great Lakes each year, according to Environment Minnesota. Clean Water Action, a national environmental organization focused on health, economic wellbeing and quality of life, is lobbying for reform of the Toxic Substances Control Act, a federal law governing chemical manufacturing and use. The Safe Chemicals Act, a bill to upgrade America’s chemical control system, is currently before Congress. Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar was a member of the group of senators who introduced the bill.

Hasan urged citizens to call on their senators to ensure agriculture interests are held to the same standards as other businesses. Hasan also recommended planting rain gardens, which help reduce runoff and sewage overflow. Gerber recommended raking leaves out of gutters. He said a five-pound bag of leaves can leach enough phosphorus into the water to result in thousands of pounds of algae growth. He also said conserving electricity and signing up for Windsource from Xcel Energy, which allows businesses to buy renewable energy, help prevent airborne mercury pollution.

As far as personal protection from pollutants, not much is clear. Safe levels of most pollutants have not been determined with certainty, and the effectiveness of home filtration systems remains unsure. Avoiding eating fish can protect against some toxins, but many remain in the water and in the air. Weber said just being aware of the threats posed by these toxins is a good first step. But ultimately “prevention is the best solution to pollution,” Gerber said.

“Minnesota takes great pride in its magnificent waterways, which provide Minnesotans with drinking water, recreation and livelihood,” Hasan said. These environmental groups believe Minnesota’s waters are too important to ignore. “It’s time to give our lakes and streams the Halloween treat they deserve— protection from pollution,” Hasan said.