Population growth is top bay polluter


May 14, 1994|By TOM HORTON

The pollsters for the Bay Attitudes Survey, released last week by the Environmental Protection Agency, somehow missed me in randomly interviewing 2,004 of the 14 million people in the six-state Chesapeake watershed.

I'd have given quite a different ranking of the bay's most serious pollutants than the one shown by the poll.

Here's how the respondents rated nine pollution threats:

Industry (74 percent ranked it among the most serious); Commercial shipping spills (70 percent); Recreational Boating (67).

Population growth (61); Individual actions (61); Sewage (57).

Landfills (54); Construction and road-building (45); Farming (36).

For starters, let me say I am not being paid by either Bethlehem Steel Corp. or the Port of Baltimore; but I'd drop the public's top three to the bottom half of my list.

Industry is big, visible, often ugly, and as easy to focus on as the gushing end of a discharge pipe. Where industry is most heavily concentrated, as in Baltimore and Norfolk, it is a dominant polluter. Fortunately for the bay, the harbors do not flush the bulk of this pollution to the Chesapeake. Also, a couple of decades of applying major bodies of federal and state legal and regulatory measures to industrial pollution have taken a toll -- it is substantially reduced, and improving.

As for shipping spills, which essentially mean oil spills, the potential for damage to the bay's shallow, marshy shorelines is huge. Oil in the water, and coated on wild creatures is unforgettably visible. I once surveyed The Sun's news library on bay pollution from 1940 through 1988, and oil spills and discharges, mostly minor, got more ink, year after year, than any other pollutant.

But as with industry, I know of no science indicating that oil spills are a major culprit in the baywide declines in fish, aquatic habitats and water quality during the last few decades.

Ditto for recreational boating.

It's a headache if you live on the Severn or Middle rivers, and have to put up with the wakes and noise from jet skis and cigarette boats. And it is truly an embarrassment that so many boaters, who should be most in touch with the bay, still pump and dump their sewage overboard ("Oh, it's only a little," they say. Right, but it's multiplied by a few hundred thousand boats).

In sum, the public's top three picks, despite their combination of hypocrisy, annoyance, bad looks and localized pollution, don't have what it takes to head my list.

My ranking has to start with population growth, because it underlies and drives so many of the other pollution sources on the list.

We all dance around this issue, because it is so very controversial, and because no one has even a theoretically acceptable solution to it.

The federal-state bay restoration program, for example, places a cap on pollutants from sewage. The states have agreed it won't be exceeded, even if population doubles or triples. But this is a "commitment," not a law. Does anyone believe, when growth and the pollution cap collide, as they have around Washington, D.C., that the cap won't give?

I often preach that we can accommodate more people and clean up the bay if all of us, in effect, behave better -- generate, per capita, less waste, use less energy, house ourselves on less open space, and so on. Yet there has been too little progress in these areas of behavior, and some are still getting worse.

There is also the largely ignored problem of mobility; large scale movements of people, in just a few decades, from city to suburb to exurb. The tendency of development, to sprawl wherever it will, treats land -- and our sense of community -- as disposable items. Got problems where you live? Just move on.

That trend is an environmental, economic and aesthetic loser, and it is largely out of control.

There are serious economists who argue compellingly that prosperity and development need not be linked to constant population growth; also some serious economies, like much of ++ Europe and Scandinavia, that prove it.

Back to my rankings. Fighting for second and third on my list are Sewage and Farming, rated sixth and ninth respectively by the public. Sewage and farming are the primary sources of "nutrients," nitrogen and phosphorus, that are well documented to be causing major, baywide losses of underwater grasses and oxygen needed by fish.

It is a fact of life that nutrients will never scare people or raise funds for anti-pollution campaigns as well as the toxic chemicals associated with industry and shipping spills. For example, in the poll the public, by nearly 3-to-1, said toxics are hurting the bay more than nutrients.

If you asked scientists and other experts on bay pollution, you would get nutrients over toxics by more than 3-to-1.

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