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Comment to Save the Critically Endangered Atlantic Sturgeon

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MAKE PUBLIC COMMENT TO SAVE THE CRITICALLY ENDANGERED ATLANTIC STURGEON OF THE DELAWARE RIVER AND OTHER OXYGEN SENSITIVE SPECIES (i.e. Shortnose Sturgeon, American Shad, Atlantic Rock Crab, Channel Catfish, Striped Bass, Largemouth Bass, White Perch, and Yellow Perch).

On December 14th, 2023, the US EPA Region 3, announced proposed new water quality standards to ensure essential protection for aquatic life in the Delaware Estuary. The proposal includes a recognition that estuary reaches of the river are used for fish propagation and must be protected as such. Significantly, the proposal includes new dissolved oxygen criteria to ensure enough oxygen in the water to support the aquatic life of the River, including the most oxygen sensitive species, of which Atlantic Sturgeon is the MOST sensitive. 

Delaware Riverkeeper Network has been advocating for action of this magnitude for over a decade because of the perilous state of the genetically unique population of Atlantic Sturgeon who can only be found in our Delaware River. The Atlantic Sturgeon are on the brink of extinction with less than 250 spawning adults left. Stronger water quality standards and dissolved oxygen levels are essential if we are to restore these majestic creatures to full population health.

The Public Comment period is currently open and closes on February 20th, 2024.

Public comments should be submitted through a special EPA portal, which can be found at this link: https://www.regulations.gov/commenton/EPA-HQ-OW-2023-0222-0001 

We are calling on you, the people of our River Valley, to submit written comment between now and the February 20th deadline. Any and all comments are important in this decision making process. Without our voices, the fish of our River may be left unheard and not fully protected.  Industry and wastewater dischargers are strongly opposed to this proposed EPA action.  Therefore, we need to be sure that EPA hears from the people to whom this River belongs, not just the industries that view our river as a waste receptacle and to be sacrificed if it means more profit.

Below is suggested language you can use in your public comment.  You can copy and paste the below text as is, or edit it so it better suits your vision and voice. 

Your comment must be submitted through a special EPA portal, which can be found at this link: https://www.regulations.gov/commenton/EPA-HQ-OW-2023-0222-0001

Whatever you choose to submit, be sure you note that your comment is in response to Docket ID No. EPA-HQ-OW-2023-0222

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
EPA Docket Center
Office of Water
Docket, Mail Code 2822IT

1200 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington DC 20460

Re: Docket ID No. EPA-HQ-OW-2023-0222

Proposed text for use or guidance:

Dear U.S. EPA,

I submit this comment for Docket ID No. EPA-HQ-OW-2023-0222.

Comment Period Extension Must Be REJECTED!

Industry and wastewater dischargers are urging the US EPA to extend, by an additional 30 days, the current comment period regarding EPA’s Proposed Water Quality Standards to Protect Aquatic Life. I urge the EPA to reject this request. For well over a decade industry, wastewater treatment facilities, and other regulatory agencies in our region, have known about the ongoing efforts to secure increased dissolved oxygen standards in order to protect the aquatic life of the Delaware Estuary. In addition, the technologies and practices necessary to achieve the proposed standard are not new, have been around for decades and are in use nationwide and around our region. Industry, wastewater operators, and government agencies are fully aware of these technologies and practices necessary to address the ammonia nitrogen, and to accomplish the nitrification, necessary to restore healthier oxygen levels to the Delaware River. The request for this comment extension is unfounded, unjustified, and merely seeks to prolong the suffering of the Atlantic Sturgeon of the Delaware River.

EPA’s Proposal to Upgrade Designated Uses & Water Quality Standards is Legally & Scientifically Mandated.

I applaud the EPA proposal to upgrade the designated uses of Delaware River Zones 3, 4, and 5 to include “propagation”.

I applaud the EPA’s determination that existing water quality standards with regards to dissolved oxygen are insufficient to ensure the protection of all life stages of Delaware Estuary aquatic life species, particularly our genetically unique population of Atlantic Sturgeon. Recognizing that the other regulatory agencies of our region (DRBC and the states) have failed to ensure protective standards, I support the administration’s decision to take the leadership role in issuing needed protective standards and to use a science-based approach to ensure high dissolved oxygen levels critical for supporting all life stages of our Delaware River Atlantic Sturgeon and other aquatic life in the River.

The Proposed Water Quality Standards Fall Short of The Full Protections Science & Sturgeon Dictate are Needed – Three Fixes Are Required.

 I am concerned that EPA failed to fully fulfill its commitment to rely on the science, and not succumb to pressure from others who would seek lower standards below what the science clearly demonstrates our Atlantic Sturgeon require.

In order to ensure dissolved oxygen levels that are fully protective of all Delaware River aquatic life, the proposed water quality standards must be adjusted in 3 critical ways:

  1. It is essential that the standards include a minimum level of dissolved oxygen that can never be violated. Simply relying on medians, averages, and percentiles fails to ensure the sturgeon and other aquatic life, at all times, have a level of oxygen that can sustain them. While a median oxygen level over a period of months may look fine on paper, in reality it can allow for serious dips in oxygen for prolonged periods of time with deadly consequences – fish, like people, may not be able to hold their breath or sustain their life systems long enough to survive a period of oxygen below the minimum level they need to survive for that prolonged period. I urge EPA to add to their regulatory proposal a minimum dissolved oxygen level that can never be violated for any period of time.

  2. The length of time over which assessments are conducted, and exceedances are allowed, must be reduced from being seasonal to monthly. As currently written, the proposed standard could allow dissolved oxygen levels that are dangerously low for up to 61 days during the most dangerous summer months of the year for the sturgeon of our River.  A four month window where violations can last from 10% to 50% of the time is dangerous and could be deadly on a serious, population-threatening scale.

  3. The science is clear that Atlantic Sturgeon require 6.5 mg/l of dissolved oxygen –  which translates to an 80% saturation value at August median temperatures – to fully support all life stages. The current proposal of 66% to 74% saturation seriously fails to meet this science-based mandate. I urge the EPA to increase the oxygen criteria to saturation levels that ensure full protection of our Atlantic Sturgeon. 

These modifications are essential to ensure full protection of all life stages of the Delaware River Atlantic Sturgeon and other aquatic life. Given how perilously close the Delaware River Atlantic Sturgeon are to extinction – less than 250 spawning adults returning each year – and the increasing pressures climate change, industry and wastewater operations place on the sturgeon, it is essential that this basic need for high levels of oxygen year round is provided for.

I hope the US EPA will take these comments into consideration to not only improve the proposed rules but to fully protect the Atlantic Sturgeon.