There is no more ‘away’ " part two
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
Puget Sound, the huge embayment of the Pacific Ocean in northwestern Washington, into which pour nine river systems fed by snowmelt and runoff from the Cascade Mountain chain, is a perfect example of the inescapable fact that there’s no more “away.”
For decades, a wide variety of wastes from industries from Bellingham to Seattle and Tacoma have been discharged into Puget Sound with the assumption that they would go away.
The contaminant in these wastes with the most serious consequences was polychlorinated biphenyls (commonly referred to as PCBs), which were widely used in transformers and as a hydraulic fluid.
Instead of going away, they accumulated in bottom deposits, where they remain to this day. They have entered the food chain, being taken up by bottom feeders, which are food for small fish, which are eaten by salmon, which in turn are consumed by seals, which are prey for killer whales (also called orcas).
At each stage in the process, the concentration of PCBs increases, and at the top of the food chain is affecting the orcas, whose numbers in Puget Sound are in serious decline, likely leading to their disappearance.
There are also serious concerns over human consumption of salmon because of their PCB content. PCBs have become quite ubiquitous in our environment and are a widespread threat. For example, a warning 25 years ago against eating Lake Michigan salmon more often than once a month has succumbed to concern about eating it at all.
But the story goes on. The amount of oils carried into Puget Sound in stormwater runoff from streets and highways in just two years is equivalent to the oil spilled from the Exxon Valdez.
Now there are even more concerns about exotic new chemicals and pharmaceuticals that are finding their way into the aquatic environment. Little is known about the potential effects of these products in our drinking water, some of which may be harmful in concentrations as low as a few parts per billion. And even less is known about the potentially greater hazard they may pose in combination with one another. Some of these exotic products are known to be “endocrine disrupters,” which means they can have adverse effects on animal and human reproduction, inhibiting fertility and increasing the incidence of birth deformities.
For too long the common misconception has been that the oceans were so vast that man’s activities could not possibly harm them. We now know better. Overfishing is stripping the oceans of one species of fish after another, and pollution in one form or another, including tons of plastics, is fouling increasing portions of our oceans. Turning to aquaculture ” farm raising those species of fish that we have destroyed in the wild ” only increases the problem by polluting the shoreline environment, the purity of which is essential to the reproduction of naturally occurring species.
Now there is a mistaken perception that the earth’s atmosphere is so vast that it cannot possibly be affected by mankind’s actions. It is becoming increasingly apparent that this also is false, as the unprecedentedly rapid rise in carbon dioxide to levels higher than have occurred in the past 100,000 years can be explained only by the massive burning of fossil fuels, which has quadrupled since 1950. The rising amount of CO2 in the atmosphere is not only contributing to global warming, which is having a deleterious impact on ocean life, but also by being partially absorbed into the oceans, is having an acidifying affect, which is killing the coral reefs, preventing shellfish from being able to create shells, and destroying the plankton that are the foundation for the entire ocean food chain.
Since there is no longer an “away” in either the oceans or the atmosphere where we can get rid of our waste products, it is imperative that we develop ways to drastically reduce the amounts we are generating, and to contain and neutralize what remains.
Hal Sundin’s column runs every other Thursday.
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