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Upstream Color

The Environmental Death of the Mississippi

by Josh Jack

A diesel spill in New Orleans this Thursday made front page headlines in the Times-Picayune: an estimated 4,200 gallons of diesel fuel was released when a cargo vessel collided with a pier near the Nashville Avenue Wharf. And yet, as Coast Guard helicopters circled overhead and fumes choked the boisterous atmosphere along the river, no mention was made of the oil spill just two weeks earlier — immediately downstream at the Poland Avenue Terminal — that had released at least 10,000 gallons, and as many as 24,000, of oil into the heart of the city when a barge came untethered from its tugboat and struck a wall. That the comparatively smaller spill received more press attention owes to the timing of the event, as well as its proximity to the French Quarter Fest (presented by Chevron), one of the city’s premier events. Yet the fact remains that both spills, (as well as the many others that occur throughout the state with dogged regularity) while substantial, (taken together their volume might comfortably fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool) are a mere drop in the bucket relative to the 12.7 million pounds of toxic chemicals dumped into the Mississippi every year, and the nearly 125 million additional pounds that are dumped into its various tributaries (this volume accounts for well over half of all water pollution in the US: 226 million pounds/year) To put it another way: these two latest spills constitute a mere one six-hundredth of the Mississippi’s mean annual pollution. The scope of such defilement might seem unaccountable, but if we are to understand the problem at all we must look for answers many hundreds of miles upstream.

As the waters of the Mississippi River flow from their source in Lake Itasca, Minnesota, they run clear and cold, cloaked in pristine North Woods forests and bogs. It remains so for roughly 320 miles, but as it wends its way southward through ever more developed landscapes its waters are quickly tainted by municipal and agricultural runoff. South of St. Cloud, the waters are no longer entirely safe to swim in. As the river flows through Dayton, MN, the Crow River adds its flow, and consequently doubles its nutrient load — the majority consisting of nitrates and phosphates used as fertilizer in industrial agriculture. The unnaturally high quantities of these nutrients (a condition termed ‘eutrophication’) prime the water for hungry nitrate-loving algae and bacteria whose numbers periodically explode in vast ‘algal blooms’ that quickly deplete the water of oxygen and kill off scores of fish and other animal life. Nitrate pollution has also been linked to serious health problems including birth defects, cancer, thyroid problems, and ‘blue baby’ syndrome: a disease that reduces the ability of infant’s blood to carry oxygen throughout the body. And yet the river has only begun its journey to the Gulf; over the next 2,000 miles it will become freighted with ever greater quantities of nasty stuff.

On its way south through the American heartland, the Mississippi is joined by the Wisconsin, Iowa, and Des Moines Rivers: each one laden with enormous quantities of the same eutrophying fertilizers, as well as the associated pesticides, herbicides, and municipal wastewater. (It is worth noting that many major American cities have a combined storm/wastewater system. During frequent floods, the systems are overrun, and large quantities of raw sewage escape into the stormwater outflow. Apart from being icky and infected with E. Coli, this sewage is similarly fortifying to the above-mentioned algae and cyanobacteria.) Iowa’s agricultural runoff is particularly heinous both in quantity and constitution: no state grows more corn than Iowa — no state raises more hogs: Iowa farmers, then, spray down their fields with 10 billion gallons of liquid hog feces each year (manure spills are also frighteningly routine) contaminating their waterways with fecal coliform in addition to great quantities of nitrogen and phosphates. The Illinois River soon adds its flow as well, augmented by the Chicago River (whose waters were once so polluted by abattoirs, factories, and sewers that the river’s flow was permanently reversed in order to carry that foul, scabby morass away from Lake Michigan into the Mississippi watershed.) More than a 1,200 miles from its outlet in the Gulf of Mexico, the Mississippi River is already a hellish, anoxic broth of algae, shit, and industrial waste.

In St. Louis, Missouri, the waters of the Mississippi mate at last with those of the Missouri River. Nicknamed the ‘Big Muddy,‘ the Missouri drains huge (half of the entire Mississippi watershed) semi-arid regions of the western United States and parts of Canada. Though it contributes a mere 13% of the Mississippi’s maximal water flow, it adds nearly half of the river’s total sediment load, worn away from the dusty hills and peaks of the Rockies and the foothills and plains of the Dakotas, Nebraska, and Kansas. Unfortunately, since dam building commenced in the 1930’s, much of this sediment has been trapped in six large reservoirs which cumulatively impound more than three-years worth of the river’s flow. (This sequestering of sediment has profound consequences downstream: while the Mississippi was once freighted with a historical average of 900 million tons of silt annually, this has been reduced to 200 million tons. Consequently, the land-building capacity of the river has been greatly diminished, even in the few places where it is permitted to fan out across its natural alluvial plain.) In addition to the agricultural and municipal pollution mentioned above, the Missouri is contaminated by other industries: cow feces are washed into the river ( or pumped there deliberately,) and mine tailings contaminate its waters with mercury, arsenic, chromium, cyanide and sulfuric acid.

190 miles south, in Cairo, Illinois, the Ohio River adds its force, and doubles the Mississippi’s volume. The Ohio River is also the most polluted river in the United States; coursing through the heart of America’s northeast industrial corridor, the river passes farmland (fertilizer, pesticides, manure), slaughterhouses and rendering plants (more manure, nitrogen, phosphorus, ammonia, fat, grease, and associated microbes), coal-fired power plants (coal ash, cadmium, selenium, arsenic, lead, mercury), steel and metal manufacturing plants (spent solvents, acid/alkaline waste, nitrates, borates, sludge, nickel, zinc, chromium, cadmium, chlorine, mercury, oil, manganese, oxides, surfactants, gas/diesel, Teflon, copper/brass/steel/aluminum scraps), and petroleum refineries (benzine, formaldehyde, arsenic, atrazine, chromium, and a host of gnarly hydrocarbons with name too long and complicated to list.) In order to skirt EPA standards, many factories will diluted toxic waste material in holding ponds until concentrations just reach acceptable levels — this watered down waste is then perfectly legal to dump. Indeed, certain tributaries of the Ohio, like the Cuyahoga, have been so historically polluted that they’ve caught fire multiple times in the past. While efforts have been made over the last few decades to rehabilitate the river (and the Rust Belt’s) reputations, recent rollbacks on EPA clean water standards have opened the door once again to industrial pillage.

South of Cairo, the Mississippi picks up the White, Arkansas, and Yazoo Rivers (all of them contaminated by the same agricultural/municipal runoff elsewhere discussed), but as it passes Baton Rouge and drops into its alluvial plane it meanders roughly 150 miles toward New Orleans. This stretch is home to more than a hundred petrochemical plants and oil/gas refineries; those in the industry call it the ‘petrochemical corridor.’ Those in harm’s way call it cancer alley. In addition to fouling the water with benzine, arsenic, formaldehyde, heavy metals, and myriad other chemical waste, much of the fertilizers and pesticides that taint the river’s northern watershed are manufactured right here, derived from hydrocarbons either extracted or refined in the state of Louisiana. Then there are the oil spills which are as routine as they are catastrophic. Minor oil spills happen all the time: nearly every single day. Larger ones (like the one outside French Quarter Fest) happen, it seems, every few weeks. There are a handful of more significant oil spills a few times a year. On average, there are something like 740 oil/gas spills in Louisiana each year.

And so we find ourselves back where we began: with oil on the water in the middle of the French Quarter. But that is not quite all. South of New Orleans, the river, thoroughly envenomed, makes a final turn, then sprints a hundred miles toward the sea. But even the boundless waters of the Gulf of Mexico are not enough to stomach this toxic cocktail. Over the last few decades a vast ‘Dead Zone’ has developed at the mouth of the Mississippi Delta. This listless expanse of water can support little life owing to the same algal blooms and hypoxic conditions found 2,000 miles north in Minnesota. Fish, shrimp, and other prize fish stocks are absent — only jellyfish seem to thrive. The Dead Zone encompasses nearly 9,000 square miles: an area larger than New Jersey — and it’s growing every day…

How big this Dead Zone ultimately becomes is up to us.

There is still time to reverse this course, but first we must recognize the scale of the problem, as well as the many, many ways we are all implicated. The sheer scope of the factors in play is dwarfed only by that of what we have to lose if things continue as they are. Hope and tenacity might just be enough. Failing that, we might soon find ourselves prisoners of another, bleaker, future — one where we must learn to to subside on jellyfish or perish. 

For those interested in learning more about pollution, and polluters in Louisiana, The Louisiana Bucket Brigade is an invaluable resource: