CAPE GIRARDEAU — Life on Missouri’s eastern border is defined by the Mississippi River, and people fish in it, boat on it, sometimes wade in it with scant concern about pollution. But would they swim in it?
The Environmental Protection Agency thinks it’s time the state start moving to make long stretches of the Mississippi sufficiently free of bacteria that swimming would be safe.
In a recent letter to the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, Benjamin Grumbles, the EPA’s assistant administrator for the Clean Water Program, told the department to take another look at its recreation use designation for the Mississippi River from the Meramec River to the Ohio River.
Grumbles noted that the federal Clean Water Act presumes that rivers, streams and lakes should be clean enough for swimming. If the water is not safe, the law allows the state agency to show why it is not possible to make the water clean.
According to the Southeast Missourian newspaper, DNR staff will recommend Jan. 7 that the state Clean Water Commission change the Mississippi’s designation from “secondary contact recreation” — a standard that covers boating, fishing and wading — to "whole body contact."
The result could mean new requirements for expensive upgrades at sewage treatment plants along the river, including the Cape Girardeau plant.
The Missouri Department of Conservation already monitors the Mississippi for several qualities, including indicators of fertilizer pollution, the acidity of the water and levels of dirt and sand.
But the key concern for human contact is with the level of E. coli, a bacteria present in human and animal waste that reaches the river in the discharge from sewage treatment plants and in the runoff from open land where livestock and wildlife graze.
“When you are swimming, you are probably never going to swallow enough water” to have health problems caused by fertilizer or chemical pollutants, said John Ford, an environmental specialist with DNR’s Water Pollution Program. “The only risk you have from swallowing a small amount of water is bacteria and protozoans.”
EPA officials want the Mississippi designated for “whole body contact” on a 1.3-mile stretch just north of St. Louis and a 164.7-mile from where it meets the Meramec River to where it meets the Ohio River.
The remaining approximately 30 miles of river, mainly along the St. Louis riverfront, will retain a designation that swimming is not recommended.
“The Clean Water Act sets out that recreation shall be available in and on the waters of the United States,” said John DeLashmit of the EPA’s Region 7 office in Kansas City.
“The rebuttable presumption is that unless we are shown otherwise that United States waters are safe for swimming and other aquatic recreation,” he said. “The DNR did not submit anything showing that is not attainable on the Mississippi River.”
Data collected at Thebes, Ill., by the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency shows that the E. coli levels in the river fluctuate widely, sometimes spiking after heavy rains.
Designating the river for “whole body contact” means sewage treatment plants along the river will have to make improvements. Because the river is not designated for full contact now, said John Hoke, an environmental specialist and use attainability coordinator for the DNR, no plant discharging into the river is required to disinfect its effluent.
“What it means practically in terms of wastewater treatment plants is that they would be required to disinfect,” Hoke said. The disinfection requirement would be put in place when a plant’s permit is renewed.
Dennis Hale, manager of Cape Girardeau’s wastewater treatment plant, said the plant discharges an average of 5.5 million gallons of treated sewage daily into the Mississippi. The city does not disinfect the wastewater.
The two common disinfecting methods are chlorination and ultraviolet light, Hale said. Installing disinfecting equipment would be the first major upgrade to the plant since it was constructed in the 1970s, Hale said.
“As far as what it would cost, I would hate to guess,” Hale said. “Either one would be pretty expensive.”
The whole body contact designation would be an invitation to the public to take a new look at the river. Many people have a mistaken impression that the river is far too polluted for swimming, several sources said.
“There is a big plus to getting people back on the Mississippi River,” Ford said. “The resource is there to be used, and there are some really interesting places on the river.”