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Judge: Fix southeast water clean-up plan
Thursday, June 30, 2005 9:37 AM EDT

Outdoor News
By Joe Albert Staff Writer

St. Paul -- Minnesota's first shot at developing a water clean-up plan under the federal Clean Water Act is off to a rocky start.

The plan, or Total Maximum Daily Load, covers 20 rivers and streams in southeast Minnesota. Written by the state Pollution Control Agency, and approved by the Environmental Protection Agency in 2003, a judge last week ordered the PCA to re-do its clean-up plan.

TMDLs are required for waters classified as impaired, and show how much of a pollutant a water body can handle in a given day and still meet water quality standards.

The southeast Minnesota plan covers waters that are impaired by fecal coliform, a bacteria found in animal and human feces. Waters impacted include the Root, Vermillion, and Whitewater rivers, and Garvin Brook, all listed as trout streams by the DNR.

"In cleaning up Minnesota's waters, it is crucial that the government agencies responsible follow the law and not just approve something that is 'good enough for now'," said Janette Brimmer, legal director for the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, which brought the case against the PCA and EPA. "This is a big victory for southeast Minnesota waters and helps set national precedent for TMDL requirements under the federal Clean Water Act."

One of MCEA's main points of contention was in the way the agencies calculated how much fecal coliform had to be reduced.

Pollutant information was averaged over all the watersheds and across the entire summer season, which led to artificially low pollution levels because waters without much pollution brought down those with higher levels, according to Kris Sigford, water quality director for MCEA. The judge's ruling said the pollution data shouldn't be averaged over watersheds or seasons.

The original plan called for a 65 percent fecal coliform reduction in all waters. That would have cleaned some areas, but others with more significant impairment would remain impaired, even with the reduction, Sigford said.

On the Whitewater River, for example, some areas had bacteria amounts 35 times higher than water quality standards allow. Under the TMDL, the river still would be more than 11 times the standard, Sigford said.

"If you're not swimming or trout fishing in one of the cleanest areas, you're in trouble under the way they did it," she said. "It's a public health issue -- too many pathogens are going to make you sick."

Under U.S. Federal District Court Judge Donovan Frank's ruling, the PCA has 90 days to revise its plan. If it can't complete it in that time, the EPA will be responsible for it.

"It's a real good deal immediately for the water of southeast Minnesota, but it also sets a precedent for the state and the nation," Sigford said. "We think it will set a precedent, and we expect PCA will do this one right and future ones right."

The polluted waters included in the TMDL are: Cannon River; Cedar River; Mississippi River; Garvin Brook; Prairie Creek; Robinson Creek; Root River; Salem Creek; Shell Rock River; Straight River; Vermillion River; Whitewater River; and Zumbro River.
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