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Cleaner Air = Cleaner Bay

PLLTN 0028Chesapeake Bay scientists have known for years that air pollution contributes approximately one third of the excess nitrogen pollution plaguing the Bay and its rivers and streams.

That’s because every time a fossil fuel – coal, oil, gasoline, natural gas – is burned, the combustion forms nitrogen oxides that waft into the atmosphere and fall back upon the earth (and water) as nitrogen pollution.

Together with pollution from farm and urban RVRS 0040
runoff, fertilizers, and sewage treatment plant discharges, this excess nitrogen spawns a glut of algae in the Bay and its rivers. These “algal blooms” cloud the water, stunt vital underwater grasses in the Bay, and create dead zones of oxygen-starved water that kill or stress marine life.

But it turns out the reverse is true as well. A university study released this week found that less air pollution seems to result in less nitrogen pollution in Bay waterways.

The Baltimore Sun reported this week that researchers at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science have found that nitrogen pollution in nine mostly forested rivers and streams in the Appalachian reaches of the Bay watershed declined simultaneously with government-mandated air pollution reductions for power plants and motor vehicles.

"It was surprising to us," said Keith N. Eshleman, the study's lead author. It seems no one had previously correlated more stringent air pollution regulations, which reduced nitrogen oxide emissions by an estimated 32 percent in the eastern United States between the late 1990s and 2005, with reduced nitrogen pollution in Bay waters.

PC 0588“Parsing data collected by a network of acid-rain monitoring stations, the University of Maryland scientists found there had been a 34 percent decline over the years in nitrogen depositions on land from rain and snow in nine watersheds,” the Sun reported. “Looking at water-quality sampling data for the nine watersheds, the researchers found even greater reductions over the same time period in nitrogen levels.”

The study seems to validate ongoing federal and state efforts to crack down on air pollution coming from power plants, cars, and other fossil-fuel-burning sources. These regulations not only reduce acid rain, smog, greenhouse gases, and toxic gases that can harm human health, but they also improve water quality in the Chesapeake Bay.

The connection between harmful air pollution and harmful Bay pollution is why the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and other conservation groups have opposed the construction of new coal-fired power plants in the Bay region. It’s also why conservationists advocate for clean, renewable energy sources such as solar and wind power, which produce no air pollution.

And it’s why energy conservation is a good thing if you want to help Save the Bay. The less energy that’s needed, the less fossil fuel will be burned, and the less air pollution will be created. “Turn off that light when you leave!” may have been something your mother or father barked to save a few pennies on the electric bill. But it’s good advice for saving a few fish, crabs, and oysters, too.

Chuck Epes

Chesapeake Bay Foundation

(Photos, top to bottom: Bill Portlock/CBF Staff; Bill Portlock/CBF Staff; Todd Cairns)

Comments

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EPA Phase 4 load model statistics: atmospheric deposition 33%, Fertilizer 25%, Municipal sewage 20%, manure 18%, onsite sewage 4%;
Virginia's proposal to consent decree: VDH will regulate 1% of the onsite sewage contribution, after Dec 7th owners building in the watershed who apply to permit an advanced septic design must also denitrify at an additional cost to owner of about 50% (~$6-8k).
The existing 536,222 systems will not be affected, these discharge an estimated 2.64Million #N/yr. The impact of a 50% reduction imposed upon on 1% of the 14,000 statewide permits issued/year in the big scheme amounts to almost nothing.
The vast majority of these systems are located over 20 miles from the Bay, and over 1/4 mile from surface water.
Note the groundwater is isolated from the soil's vadose zone by many barriers, therefore these EPA/VDH calculations may not work at home.

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