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Ocean acidification: another path to EPA rules on carbon emissions?

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The center argued that the acidity in Washington State's coastal waters had increased sufficiently to violate EPA standards, but that the state and the EPA failed to list the waters as "impaired." That designation triggers a process for reducing pollution levels to prevent the condition from getting worse.

While the settlement falls short of the Center for Biological Diversity's goal, the agreement "creates a public process for the EPA to prepare guidance for all the states with coastlines on how to address ocean acidification," says Miyoko Sakashita, the center's point person on ocean issues.

That includes helping states assess and monitor the chemistry of their coastal waters, working with them to determine acceptable daily maximum levels of acidification, and providing support as they try to develop regulations controlling the pollutant involved: carbon dioxide.

The notion of an expanded EPA role isn't new. The pH of coastal waters has been regulated since 1976. Last year, the EPA began digging into the issue, seeking a broad range of information on the topic as it relates to human CO2 emissions.

But given the resistance in Congress and in corporate boardrooms to the prospect that the EPA would regulate CO2 emissions under the Clean Air Act, the settlement's small step toward cracking down on CO2 emissions via the Clean Water Act represents another "oh, no" moment.

Yet as a practical matter, any meaningful regulation may be at least a decade away, even if opposition to the effort could be swept aside.

A lack of baseline information on the pH of coastal waters is one stumbling block.

"I've been monitoring these changes for the past 30 years," says Richard Feeley, a marine scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory in Seattle. "There's no doubt these changes are occurring and that they are man-made changes."

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