Don’t miss the Carroll County home show this weekend!

Cycle of growth and devastation



The breeze blowing from the Mississippi River across sugar cane fields to Emelda West's house carries the sting of ammonia. Since West's girlhood, the nation's densest concentration of fertilizer factories has risen along the river upstream from New Orleans. The two closest to her home are among America's top 25 sources of toxic pollution.

Folks in West's neighborhood hardly ever swim in the river anymore. Even in stifling heat, they close their windows to shut out the breeze. "You can be blindfolded," the 74-year-old woman says. "When that wind is blowing across the river, oh, it's awful."

St. James Parish is the first link in a chemical connection that binds Gulf Coast fishermen to heartland farmers far up the Mississippi.

On its journey from the river's mouth to the fields of the Midwest, man-made nitrogen is a life-giver. The fertilizer manufactured here makes the Midwest the world's most bountiful granary.

But returning downstream, fertilizer becomes a destroyer. Runoff transforms the river into a nutrient pipeline loaded with almost three times as much nitrogen as 50 years ago.

And where the Mississippi meets the Gulf of Mexico, the excess nitrogen threatens to destroy an age-old chemical balance that supports a rich gumbo of sea life.

The imbalance starves the water of oxygen, creating a dead zone in the middle of the most important commercial and recreational fishing zone in the United States, according to a federal scientific task force.

The cycle of upriver abundance and downstream devastation raises fundamental questions that could affect every American: how much we pay for grains and meat, how much tax money is spent on environmental restoration, and how well some of the world's finest farmland will sustain future generations.

Farmers are taking a lot of heat for the riverborne pollution. But scientists say they are not ultimately to blame. The real driving force, they say, is a booming population that expects America's breadbasket to produce wave upon wave of cheap grain and meat, regardless of environmental costs.

For more than 25 million years, the Mississippi has been the Gulf of Mexico's life-giver, nourishing bayous and sea creatures. But because of the man-made changes, the downstream basin that some call "America's sea" is being force-fed a crippling overdose of nitrogen.

Barged and piped upstream to the farms of the Midwest, the nitrogen fertilizer washes into countless creeks and sloughs in the great river's drainage, which stretches from Glacier National Park in northwestern Montana to the Youghiogheny River in Western Maryland, embracing two-fifths of the land in the lower 48 states.

It takes about a week for a nitrogen molecule to flow downriver from Iowa to Louisiana, where nutrients pouring from the mouth of the Mississippi River create the Western Hemisphere's biggest "dead zone" -- a summertime swath of oxygen-starved water up to 2 1/2 times the size of the Chesapeake Bay, where virtually nothing can live.

Worldwide, there are at least 50 of these oxygen-starved zones in oceans and bays, including parts of the Chesapeake. The Gulf of Mexico's zone is the world's third-largest, after Europe's Baltic and Black seas.

In a typical dead zone, an overdose of nitrogen fuels runaway algae blooms. The blooms consume bacteria in a process that sucks oxygen from the water. As oxygen levels drop, shrimp and fish swim away. Crabs, clams, snails, worms and other captive bottom-dwellers are killed. Sometimes there is no oxygen in the water at all.

The Gulf dead zone threatens the source of two-thirds of the nation's shrimp catch and more than half of its oysters. The Gulf region's annual catch is bigger than the combined seafood harvest of the Great Lakes and the southern Atlantic Coast, from the Chesapeake Bay to the Florida Keys.

Smokestack pollution, parking lot runoff and cities' sewage contribute to the problem. But farming and livestock manure are by far the largest sources, responsible for about three-fourths of the nitrogen, according to the federal task force.

Now government officials and environmentalists -- along with scientists, some farmers and even a few fertilizer salesmen -- are trying to reduce fertilizer pollution by prodding the Midwest's $98 billion agricultural industry for sweeping changes in the way it grows crops. But the nitrogen connection won't be broken easily.

"The agricultural community is in denial that they're a part of the problem," says L. D. McMullen, director of the Des Moines Waterworks, which draws its supply from the Mississippi Basin's most fertilizer-polluted river, the Raccoon. "It's like a tug of war going back and forth now. But there appears to be a glimmer of light. Things may be changing."

Toxic beginning

The nitrogen chain reaction begins on the River Road, where 136 petrochemical plants cluster along an 85-mile stretch of the Mississippi between New Orleans and Baton Rouge -- in places like Geismar, La., where small frame houses and big live oaks stand in the shadows of the smokestacks.

Geismar has a convenience store, a strip club, an uninhabited Main Street and an afternoon traffic jam as workers change shifts at about a dozen nearby factories, including some of nation's largest producers of anhydrous ammonia. The acrid gas, a combination of nitrogen and hydrogen, is the cheapest, most concentrated form of chemical fertilizer.

Emelda West and Dolores Simmons live downwind. In a place where people still refer to their settlements by the names of plantations that lined the riverbanks -- and remember ancestors who were held in slavery there -- the two women ended up among the founders of a grass-roots political movement.

St. James Citizens for Jobs and Environment is trying to pressure the big companies that dominate the area into reducing air and water pollution.

The women's homes are just across the river from a fertilizer factory that, according to its own reports to the EPA, released nearly 6 1/2 million pounds of toxic ammonia into the air and water in 1998. "I was baptized in the Mississippi River," says Simmons, 60, "but the water got so polluted we stopped doing it."

The fertilizer factories' basic material is free: nitrogen gas, so common it makes up 78% of Earth's atmosphere. The other main ingredient comes from the sea floor underneath the Gulf of Mexico: cheap, abundant natural gas.

This enormous chemical complex is possible only because of the discovery in the 1950s of Gulf oil and gas fields. The low-cost fuel drastically cut the cost of ammonia manufacturing, making cheap fertilizer available to farmers across America.

The technology for making ammonia is almost a century old, based on work done early in the 20th century by two German scientists who earned Nobel Prizes for their efforts. In the 1960s, American engineers streamlined the process, making it possible for a single plant to produce more than 3 million pounds of ammonia a day.

The factories where this alchemy takes place are mazes of rusting sheds, spiraling pipes, massive boilers and heavy steel tanks, overlaid with thick plumes of steam and chemical vapors.

Here the natural gas is mixed with nitrogen drawn from the air, heated to 850 degrees or more, subjected to pressure 20 times greater than Earth's atmosphere and forced over a sheet of hot metal. The molecules split apart and recombine, to form carbon dioxide and ammonia.

The carbon dioxide and assorted wastes are chemically stripped away and released into the air. The resulting ammonia gas is 82 percent nitrogen.

Each year about 2 million tons' worth is loaded onto a fleet of barges, each almost the length of a football field. Yoked together, the barges are pushed by tugs up the Mississippi, the Ohio, the Missouri and the Arkansas rivers to far-flung landings.

Another 2 million tons flow through a network of underground pipes that spread like splayed fingers across America's midsection. The longest, the 1,900-mile-long Gulf Central Pipeline, runs from Louisiana to Nebraska.

A small army of railroad cars and tanker trucks then carries the pressurized gas to farm supply stores across the Midwest -- where farmers like Roy Bardole rely on it.

Cheap insurance

On a fine fall day after his crop is in and before the ground freezes, Bardole drives from his farm in Rippey, a tiny central Iowa crossroads, to a nearby farm co-op to collect the first of many "nurse tanks" filled with anhydrous ammonia. Midwestern corn growers fertilize their fields in fall so the land will be ready for spring planting -- then hope winter storms don't wash all the fertilizer into nearby rivers.

Bardole's 1,000 acres of corn and soybeans support a four-generation family of 12 people. The family has farmed the same land since his great-grandfather settled here 100 years ago.

His is fine-grained soil left behind by retreating glaciers of the last ice age and colored a rich coffee black by the fertile residue of the tallgrass prairie that grew here for millennia. But corn is a more demanding crop than prairie grasses.

Bardole uses about 140 pounds of nitrogen fertilizer per acre -- substantially less than most of his neighbors -- at a cost of about $25 an acre. He'd like to use even less. He's been to Louisiana, seen the dead zone and is convinced that one cause of the damage is profligate fertilizer use by farmers 1,000 miles or more upstream.

"Our neighbors have a right to demand that we farm in an environmentally friendly manner," he says. "But survival has got to take precedence."

Midwestern farmers are hard-pressed because of falling commodity prices. Both mainstays of Iowa agriculture -- corn and soybeans -- are at or near rock bottom. Bardole says four neighbors were forced out of farming last year.

"We've got another shaking-out going on," says Larry Thomsen, a vice president at West Central Co-op in nearby Ralston, Iowa. In such times, many farmers see extra nitrogen as cheap insurance that can boost yields or at least prevent harvests from failing, Thomsen says.

And Bardole, 57, says that with prices this low, every bushel counts. He owes more than $100,000 a year on bank notes for machinery, seed and farm chemicals and can't afford to take the chance of using less fertilizer.

Bardole wants to save money and help save the Gulf at the same time, so he tries to reduce erosion and nitrogen runoff from his fields. But research shows most of the fertilizer doesn't end up in the harvest. Some escapes into the air; Midwestern rain has nitrogen levels five to 30 times higher than pristine rain, says Iowa State University ecologist John Downing, who estimates that the fertilizer that evaporates or washes away costs the region's farmers $410 million a year.

When it rains on Bardole's fields, nitrogen dissolved in rainwater trickles into underground drainage pipes that empty into the Raccoon River. Such drains underlie 70 percent of the state, efficiently carrying water -- and pollutants -- from fields to rivers. Few Iowa streams remain in anything like their natural state; most have been converted from meandering streams into arrow-straight ditches.

And almost all of the wetlands that could act as natural filters for pollutants are gone.

When the pioneers settled Iowa, it had 3 million acres of wetlands; today only 50,000 acres remain, mostly in isolated patches no bigger than a suburban lot. Across the Midwest about 50 million acres of wetlands -- an area almost as big as the entire mid-Atlantic region -- have disappeared.

"We've short-circuited the natural drainage patterns," says Paul Johnson, a northwest Iowa farmer and former director of the U.S. Soil Conservation Service and Iowa's Department of Natural Resources. "That's some of the most productive farmland in the world, but it doesn't work the way a natural system would."

Dead zone

Once the nitrogen from Iowa fields reaches the Gulf of Mexico, nature's response is swift. In a week to 10 days, oxygen levels drop from a healthy 5 parts per million or more to 2 parts per million or less.

In late July of last year, scientist Nancy Rabalais found the largest dead zone ever recorded. Most of Louisiana's coast, from the mouth of the Mississippi to Texas, was transformed into a low-oxygen zone -- an area bigger than New Jersey, abandoned by every living thing with the power to swim away.

This July, after a drought in the heartland, the dead zone was only a fifth that size -- proof, Rabalais says, of a link between the amount of nitrogen washed from Midwestern farm fields and the plight of the Gulf. Even though the zone was reduced, it was still lethal: In August, thousands of oxygen-starved crabs were trapped in it, beached themselves on a barrier island and died.

Rabalais is a marine ecologist at the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium in the tiny seaside settlement of Cocodrie. In 1985, she was the first to map the Gulf dead zone. She watched as it grew, and eventually she went public with the news that something was amiss.

"We always knew there was something wrong," says Cocodrie native Houston Foret, 61, who has run a shrimp packing house here for 31 years. "We knew the good fishing places, and all of a sudden there'd be nothing there -- no shrimp, fish, nothing. But until Nancy came along and studied it, we didn't know what it was called."

Scientists think a large low-oxygen zone began appearing in the Gulf about 60 years back. But it isn't clear how much harm it has done to fishing. Since the late 1960s, commercial fishermen working these waters have landed more than a billion pounds of seafood each year, an industry worth $2.8 billion a year.

In spite of the dead zone, the catch has been "relatively constant," the scientists' panel found. Fishermen often find plenty of fish at the edge of the oxygen-starved water, where fleeing creatures congregate.

"At this point, you can use the dead zone to your advantage," says Johnny Glover, owner of a charter fishing business in Cocodrie. "You know there's always fish out there somewhere. But it's getting bigger and bigger. And if nothing's done about it, it could be like a cancer spreading and spreading."

In 1993, the Mississippi basin experienced disastrous floods -- and the dead zone doubled in size. Since then, the brown shrimp catch has fallen from record highs to below average. The federal panel says there's a risk that some fisheries could collapse if the dead zone worsens.

The effects of nitrogen overdose follow a pattern around the world, scientists say: At first, rampant algae growth is a boon for fisheries, triggering higher-than-usual catches. But eventually there comes a saturation point. Key species in the food chain are killed off, and fishing declines -- often in a swift collapse.

Asked the federal experts, in a six-volume study of the dead zone: "The question is, where on this curve is the Gulf of Mexico?"

Lessons from the Baltic

The question has no clear answer, but experts think they glimpse the Gulf's future in Europe. One of the world's worst dead zones lies in the Baltic Sea, a brackish body of water tucked deep in the continent's northeast corner at the heart of Scandinavia's ancient fishing and seafaring culture.

Covering as much as 27,000 square miles -- an area nearly three times the size of Maryland -- the Baltic's oxygen-starved zone is second only to the Black Sea's in extent and severity.

Some think the Baltic's fabled cod fishery is on the verge of a catastrophe, with nitrogen-laden runoff from farms and air pollution a major factor, along with overfishing.

The cod, prized commercially and for sport, is intimately woven into the history, culture and economies of the Baltic states. A 3,500-year-old Swedish rock carving shows men at sea, fishing for cod. The tradition thrived through the 1980s, when Swedish agricultural researcher Staffan Steineck remembers cod-fishing with friends and catching more than 100 pounds in a couple of hours.

"We'd clean them at 10 p.m. on summer nights listening to the nightingales sing," Steineck says, "but that's mostly gone now."

For cod to spawn successfully, the eggs must sink into the saltier, heavier layers of water that lie along the bottom of the Baltic. But the deep layers are exactly where oxygen is most scarce, scientists say. So the young die.

Of the Baltic's three great "deeps," historic centers of cod spawning, only one still functions. In the other two, "the cod still spawn like always, but nothing comes of it," says Stig Leonardsson, a cod fisherman out of the town of Simrishamn in southern Sweden.

But at the same time, overall commercial fish landings for the Baltic have increased tenfold since the start of the 20th century. That's partly because people used to have to share the Baltic's seafood bounty with hungry seals, but toxic PCBs have killed off so many of them that they no longer give fishermen any serious competition.

In a sense, the Baltic is not so much diminished as it is in a profound shift, much like the Chesapeake Bay. Clear-water and deep-water communities of aquatic life are losing out to surface-water and cloudy-water ones. High-value fish have been replaced by less desirable species.

Cod, pike and perch -- all prized by fishermen -- can't cope with lower oxygen and algae-clogged waters. But sprat and herring, used for their oil and as fish meal, can handle the changing conditions and benefit from the decline in the cod that prey on them.

As a result, Sweden's commercial fishermen have declined from 6,000 to 2,000 in recent decades, and the survivors have had to become extremely efficient -- leading to overfishing of species like cod.

Leonardsson, 64, is among those who have adjusted and survived. He's gone to bigger boats, longer trips and fishing more outside the Baltic. Cod fetches good money, he says; it's in high demand now that catches fluctuate between half and one-quarter of their peak during the 1980s.

But recently there are signs that cod might be sinking into even deeper trouble. Spawning females are getting smaller as the result of fishing pressure. The small fishes' eggs are less buoyant than large cod eggs, sinking deeper and exposing them to even lower, deadlier levels of oxygen.

The dead zones have gotten so bad that periodic inflows of North Sea water, which historically breathed oxygen into the Baltic's deeps, aren't improving cod spawning as they used to.

"When I pull up my trawl in the deeper areas, I can tell the problem," says Leonardsson. "I can smell the sulfur" -- the telltale odor of dead zones.

Toxic shock

On Louisiana's Bayou Lacombe, Cliff Glockner has caught the same whiff of a dying fishery.

If you want proof that the Mississippi River carries a lethal dose of nutrients, says the lifelong fisherman, take a look at his beloved Lake Pontchartrain.

In normal times, the 670-square-mile lake just north of New Orleans is a giant seafood stew, a brackish-water bowl full of tasty redfish, white shrimp, blue crabs, flounder and mullet. The big river and its nutrient plume usually don't affect the lake.

But when floods sweep down the Mississippi and threaten New Orleans, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers opens the 7-mile-long Bonnet Carre Spillway and dumps river water into the lake. And with that, the lake goes into toxic shock.

It happened most recently in March 1997, when one-fifth of the Mississippi's flow poured into the lake. Soon algae were growing so fast that the lake appeared to bubble, turning electric blue-green and thickening to the consistency of shampoo. Blue crabs and shrimp fled the advancing ooze, heading for the lake's outlet to the open Gulf.

"For a month there we were in a crab boom -- catching all you can, and then they were gone," says Glockner, 63, who left commercial fishing to open a seafood restaurant on the lake's north shore. "Nobody wanted to come out on the lake because it was filthy and it stank."

Pete Gerica, who catches fat blue crabs, shrimp and mullet from Bayou Sauvage on Lake Pontchartrain's south shore, estimates he lost $20,000 that season. Others lost as much as $40,000, says Gerica, 47, president of the Lake Pontchartrain Fisherman's Association.

A Corps of Engineers study concluded the lake suffered no permanent harm, and found most fishermen moved to the open Gulf and kept fishing. A year later, lake catches were normal, the Corps said.

But Glockner says about 100 of the lake's 400 fishermen left the business. Those who persist have come to accept that their way of life -- following the cycle of the seasons on the lake -- can no longer provide a living. Nowadays good fishermen need big, expensive boats that can travel beyond the dead zone for a week or more.

"It takes the heart out of your life," Glockner says. "It ain't a mom-and-pop operation on the bayou anymore."

What's happened to his lake is happening all around the world, Glockner points out: "It don't matter if it's fertilizer in the Mississippi River or animal manure in the Chesapeake Bay. ... When you throw all those nutrients in there, you make the whole system just explode."

Feeding the world

Since the mid-1990s, Nancy Rabalais has been on the stump, traveling from congressional hearing rooms to Farm Bureau conventions, drawing attention to the dead zone and its link to farming.

"I used to be real naive," says Rabalais. " 'Why don't they just wait till spring to fertilize? And why don't they use less?' And I just kept getting the farm economics thrown back at me. All I can say is, 'Those shrimp are as important to those shrimpers as your corn is to you.' ... If the way you're doing business is in your best interest but you're hurting the rest of the world, you better change the way you do business."

Is there a way to clean up the dead zone without endangering Midwestern agriculture? Maybe, the federal panel concluded.

New policies could encourage farmers to reduce fertilizer use by 20 percent or more. The government could pay to restore millions of acres of wetlands in areas carefully chosen to yield the greatest nitrogen reductions.

That would mean taking some land out of farming and settling for lower yields on the rest. And that would require Midwestern farmers to let go of the values that have guided them since Dust Bowl days, says John Downing, an Iowa State University ecologist.

"There's a strong sense in Iowa that we're feeding the world," Downing says. "This is a moral duty that I have heard expressed many times, that I think is taken very seriously.

"This isn't anything you're going to solve by saying, 'You farmers are bad,' because they're feeding the world and trying to make a profit by working hard."

The federal task force is expected to recommend a set of voluntary, government-subsidized farm initiatives in October, but already its work has sparked intense opposition from farmers, the fertilizer industry and farm state officials.

Critics say the panel intends to make Midwestern farmers the sole scapegoats for the Gulf's problems. "They're going to recommend the kind of reduction in nitrogen use that will destroy me financially and will not fix the problem," says Iowa farmer Bardole.

Ironically, the panel's preliminary studies found changes in farm practices would benefit Mississippi Basin farmers more than anyone else. They would produce fewer crops -- but crop prices would go up, and they'd end up ahead. They would save on fertilizer, suffer less erosion and drinking water contamination, and end up with cleaner rivers and lakes.

Consumers would lose most, paying higher prices for food, especially meat, because the cost of animal feed would shoot up.

But the economists also predicted that, as Corn Belt agriculture scaled back, farmers elsewhere would ratchet up production, pouring on fertilizer. So instead of solving the nutrient pollution problem, the new policies might simply shift it elsewhere.

"I don't know that there is a solution," says Louisiana State University ecologist John Day, a member of the federal study team. "We looked at fairly drastic things. ... And we never got an answer to the question, how big a problem is there really? Has it really affected fisheries? Is it really worth it?"

But others, like Downing, think the proposals might prevent the collapse of Gulf fisheries. And they believe this would benefit everyone in ways that can't be measured by simply stacking up the $98 billion Midwestern farm economy against the $2.8 billion Gulf fishery.

"It doesn't even seem like a fair fight in dollar terms," Downing says. "These are two cultures that are uniquely American, and they're both in trouble, and they both need help. How do you put a dollar figure on the value of Louisiana coastal culture?

"And how do you put a dollar figure on the value of the fabric of mid-America? You can't do that."

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad