EPA sued over clean water rules to curb ocean acidification

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Environmentalists sued the Obama administration on Thursday seeking new federal water-quality standards designed to protect marine life against the corrosive effects of carbon emissions absorbed into the ocean from the burning of fossil fuels.

The lawsuit, brought by the Arizona-based Center for Biological Diversity, accused the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency of failing to take action as required under the Clean Water Act to stem the rising threat of ocean acidification.

Specifically, the lawsuit demands that water quality criteria for measuring pollutants be updated by the EPA to reflect the latest science showing carbon dioxide emissions are altering the chemistry of oceans, making seawater increasingly acidic.

The center said that water-quality standards as measured by pH levels have not been revised in 40 years.

Ocean acidification, a side effect of fossil fuel combustion driving global climate change, harms a wide range of marine animals “by hindering their ability to build protective shells and skeletons they need to survive and by disrupting metabolism and critical biological functions,” the lawsuit said.

According to the 12-page complaint, filed in U.S. District Court in Washington, seawater today is 30 percent more acidic than during the pre-industrial era, and this trend is occurring more rapidly than it has over the past 300 million years.

“The EPA is ignoring the threat of ocean acidification, and that’s very dangerous,” Emily Jeffers, a center attorney, said in a statement. “We need to act now to protect oysters, corals and other marine animals.”

The EPA declined to comment on the case and the Department of Justice did not respond to requests for comment.

The lawsuit cited instances of ocean acidification linked to an oyster die-off in shellfish hatcheries in the Pacific Northwest, and to severe erosion in the shells of tiny plankton at the base of the marine food chain in waters off California.

The EPA in 2010 stated its intention to issue acidification guidance to the states “pursuant to its duties under the Clean Water Act,” but has yet to do so, the lawsuit said. The agency has likewise failed to act on a petition filed by the Center for Biological Diversity in April 2013 seeking new standards addressing the problem, according to the complaint.

The EPA has acknowledged the harm posed to marine life from rising levels of carbon dioxide deposited in the ocean from fossil fuel combustion. Dissolved in seawater, CO2 reacts to form carbonic acid that stunts the ability of corals, shellfish and some plankton to produce calcium carbonate, the EPA says on a website about climate change.

The agency cited research showing that 28 percent of all carbon dioxide produced by the burning of fossil fuels over the past 250 years has been absorbed in the world’s oceans. (Additional reporting and writing by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles)