An Overview of the Pollution Problem in the Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico

When asked where the most polluted place in the united states is many people even educated people answer would be Houston, Texas with Los Angeles, California a close second. Although Houston is the most polluted city and yes Los Angeles is a close second. There is a place the size of the state of New Jersey that is worse than the pollution problem in those two cities. This area is known as the "Dead Zone" it is located at the mouth of the Mississippi in the Gulf of Mexico. The dead zone cannot support any life.

 This dead zone in the gulf is eight thousand square miles in which there are no plankton, no shrimp, no crabs, no fish, no life at all. There are two critical question that have to be addressed, why can life not be supported here? And What can be done? Well, that is what a federal, state and local government task force that ahs gathered in St. Louis to try to figure out and make some recommendations. Scientists say it is caused by nitrate compounds washing down the Mississippi from fertilizer runoff, sewage treatment plants and other pollution sources. These nitrates contain nitrogen the nitrogen allows tiny algae plants to grow at very fast rates, which uses up oxygen in the water and creates an oxygen death in the water, which is known as Hypoxia. Anything that can swim away does so. So, fish escape and so do shrimp, but the plants, plankton and shellfish at the bottom die.

 The Environmental Protection Agency put together this task force of scientist from many different federal, state, and local agencies to make recommendations, and coordinate a plan to reduce nitrates in the Mississippi. Which isn’t going over too popular with farmers, manufacturers and others in the Mississippi delta. But even reducing the nitrates by 20 percent or 30 percent would increase oxygen levels in the water as much as 50 percent. They have yet to decide to set a nitrate reduction level or even whether to set one at all.

 Environmentalist feel that something needs to be in the works as soon as possible. The dead zone kills thousands of crabs and other marine life that have been washing up on the shores of south Louisiana’s coast are the latest proof that the dead zone, an oxygen- depleted section of the Gulf of Mexico, is real and that its consequences are fatal. According to the Times-Picayune people of Louisiana can do little more than ask the farmers to stop, and since the excess nitrogen does not adversely affect their livelihood, they have little motivation to stop. Meanwhile, dead crabs wash up on shores. Some of the crabs were alive when they washed ashore. But they were in such bad condition that when picked up, their legs fell away from their bodies. Fixing the dead zone problem here will take national cooperation, but many Midwestern agriculture officials have shown a reluctance that borders on defiance.

 A recent meeting in St. Louis was the kind that gives farmers nightmares. the meeting was real, but the nightmares are dark fantasies arising of farmers' exaggerated fears of change. This sixth meeting of the Mississippi River/Gulf of Mexico Watershed Nutrient Task Force discussed reducing nitrogen that washes into the Gulf of Mexico by 20 to 40 percent-from 650,000 metric tons to 350,000-by the year 2010 or calling for a general reduction in the size of the dead zone by shooting for 30 percent reduction in the use of nitrogen. Excess nitrates in the dead zone in the gulf, an area that is so depleted of oxygen by the overpopulation of algae that fish and other marine life cannot live there. According to Otto Doering, A professor at Purdue University in Indiana, nitrogen fertilizer is generally regarded as the primary source of those nitrates.

 According to data from the Fertilizer Institute, American farmers used more than 45 billion pounds of fertilizer in 1998,more than a third of it on corn. Doering estimated  "that even by the rules of conventional farming, corn growers use 20 percent too much fertilizer. No other industry in America tolerates such excessive waste. That waste exacerbates another farm problem: weeds."

 Elaine Ingham a biologist at Oregon State University and founder of Soilfoodweb Inc., a farm consulting company said  "too much fertilizer just gives farmers more weeds, and most farmers don't even know it. they also think that all there is to soil science is nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. So instead of looking for the cause of their weeds, farmers spend even more money on more chemicals to take out the weeds."

 Recent research suggests that farmers actually can profit from shifting away from chemical fertilizer and relying more on soil biology. “We now know that mycorrhizal fungi in natural systems are of vital importance for plant nutrient uptake and growth," said David Janos, a biologist at the University of Miami. The fungal filaments extend out from a plant's root system, and go much farther into the soil than do the roots to "dramatically increase the volume of soil from which the plant can recover limited nutrients." Too much fertilizer, destroys the fungal network, and once it has been destroyed "you have to keep adding more fertilizer just to stay in place," said Janos

 According to a St. Louis Post dispatch a Pacific Ag Research, a California-based commercial agriculture research company, has reported it could eliminate fertilizers and pesticides and increase yield by following Ingham's advice of using soil biology. Researchers at Michigan State University found that corn farmers practicing ecological agriculture had gross 37 percent higher than conventional corn farms.

 Given these facts there should be no question about what should be done about the "Dead Zone." If the researchers are right, then everyone can be satisfied. They will just have to give up the traditional ways of farming for the newer ecological ways of farming. On one hand Louisiana, Mississippi and environmentalist will get the safe and health waters for the shrimp, crabs, plankton and plants. Yet, the farmers in states up north will get better yielding crops by 37 percent and also have fewer weeds.