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Ocean Acidification
The New York Times, February 12, 2010

Some See Clean Water Act Settlement Opening New Path to GHG Curbs
By Allison Winter, Greenwire

U.S. EPA settled a lawsuit yesterday by agreeing to use the Clean Water Act to address ocean acidification, a move that some see as opening a side door to federal curbs on greenhouse gases that scientists link to problems in the marine environment.

The settlement with the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity directly addresses EPA's failure to require Washington state to list its marine waters as impaired by rising acidity. The deal requires EPA to begin a rulemaking aimed at helping states identify and address acidic coastal waters.

The effort could lead to the first Clean Water Act effort to protect acidifying marine waters -- a move the center sees leading to restrictions on carbon dioxide emissions, just as the water law led to regulation of air emissions of mercury and pollution that causes acid rain.

Oceans absorb about a third of the carbon dioxide produced by human activities and are becoming more acidic as they absorb more carbon, said Miyoko Sakashita, a senior attorney at the center's San Francisco office.

Ocean acidification, Sakashita said, is "global warming's evil twin."

Scientists estimate that ocean water is 30 percent more acidic than it was before factories, cars, planes and other users of fossil fuels became widespread.

Rising acidity threatens marine life, scientists say. Several studies have suggested that shifting ocean chemistry is particularly dangerous for shellfish, corals and other animals that grow calcium carbonate shells. If water becomes too acidic, it can dissolve those shells, sometimes faster than creatures can rebuild them.

States have taken steps to address rising acidity in lakes and streams, but the settlement represents the first time EPA has agreed to take on ocean acidity. The center's legal complaint started in Washington state, but the group has petitioned every coastal state to address the issue, Sakashita said.

In the settlement filed yesterday in the U.S. District Court in Seattle, EPA agreed to take public comment on ocean acidity, ways states can determine if coastal waters are affected, and how states might regulate "total maximum daily loads" of pollutants linked to acidification.

"Protection of the nation's water quality, including the health of our ocean waters is among EPA's highest priorities," an EPA spokeswoman said in a statement. "EPA is interested in learning more about how to protect our ocean and coastal waters from acidification."

EPA must start the process by posting a notice in the Federal Register next week. The settlement requires the agency to decide how to proceed by Nov. 15.

The settlement does not force EPA and states to immediately list waters as impaired from acidification, or to begin regulations to address the issue. Rather, EPA must only develop guidance for states on the matter.

Eventually, the effort could lead to voluntary programs or an enhancement of states' ongoing efforts to reduce carbon dioxide.

The center's lawsuit over ocean acidification is one of several legal actions all aimed at forcing the federal government to address climate change. The group has also petitioned EPA to set national limits for greenhouse gases using the Clean Air Act and set pollution standards for black carbon, which accumulates on sea ice and glaciers and contributes to their melting.

The group has also filed dozens of lawsuits seeking endangered or threatened status for plants and animals at risk from climate change.

"If we can use every tool in the toolbox -- Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act, new climate legislation and state efforts to address it -- all those things are important," Sakashita said. "This lawsuit and settlement we hope will push things that way."

Sakashita added, "The science shows there are consequences of ocean acid, it is being caused by human sources, and the trajectory is going to get much worse if don't do something about it -- we're aiming to get the political will there, as well."

'Dangerous and effectively irreversible'

Ken Caldeira, a scientist at the Carnegie Institution who studies ocean acidification, said rising carbonic acid levels have created a "dangerous and effectively irreversible experiment" in the oceans.

Scientists are not clear how it will affect all marine ecosystems, but Caldeira said some systems are likely to be devastated, especially those that rely on coral reefs.

"I think the preponderance of evidence is that continued emissions of carbon dioxide will lead to the demise of coral reefs as a result of ocean acidification," Caldeira said.

But developing regulations under the Clean Water Act to address it figures to be difficult.

States have limited data on baseline levels of ocean acidity. Regulators would likely need a decade's worth of information about dozens of coastal sites.

Caldeira said he is concerned about the ability of states to make an accurate assessment of the problem, especially since lab experiments may underestimate what happens in the field. Nevertheless, he said, some action needs to be taken to ensure continued ocean health.

"The only real solution to this problem is for humanity to understand that it is no longer acceptable to base our lifestyle on the assumption that it is OK to use the oceans and the atmosphere as waste dumps," Caldeira said. "This means we need to be aiming at getting close to zero carbon dioxide emissions."

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