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Lethal but legal pollution – awful offal!

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Earth Day, 2009 is a great occasion to talk about global issues, not restricted to south Louisiana. This day also coincides with the first 100 days of the Obama administration and I understand that the president was in Iowa visiting a plant that produces components for wind turbines.

Photo from

Photo from

Carbon dioxide is a colorless, tasteless, odorless trace constituent of our atmosphere, but the gas on which we totally depend for what we eat and for keeping the dark side of Earth from freezing. Now CO2, a gas that we exhale with every breath, has finally been recogized as a potentially lethal (in grossly enhanced volumes) but still legal pollutant that in about sixty days will be coming under EPA’s regulatory umbrella.

This Earth Day post centers on another class of potentially lethal but currently legal coastal pollutants, this time constituents of our hydrosphere, rather than our atmosphere.  

On April 21 I noted a story in Huffingtonpost on multiple low level chemical contaminants in the nation’s water, such as pharmaeuticals, none of which are currently regulated by the EPA under the Clean Water Act.  Coincidentally that evening I watched a two hour documentary called Poisoned Waters on PBS’ Frontline on the same generic subject but using as prime examples two of the nation’s best known and most heavily used estuaries, the Chesapeake Bay and Puget Sound. This program can be accessed and viewed online, which I highly recommend.  

These two extremely productive and important temperate estuaries share two major water pollution issues with the Louisiana ecosystem and they suffer from a third that is presumably of lower risk to us. The program addresses pollutants from three broad categories: (1) agricultural runoff; (2) a large suite of trace compounds finding their way into surface water including pharmaceuticals, solvents, pesticides, antibiotics, synthetic hormones, plastic leachates, etc.; and (3) industrial pollutants, particularly Polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCB’s*.  

Contaminants in the second category have only become detectible in recent times as the assay technology has advanced to be able to measure concentrations at just a few parts per billion.

My focus on the decline of the Mississippi River delta has somewhat distracted me from recognizing that we are far from alone in terms of coastal crises.  I worked on the Cheaspeake Bay before the Richmond-Philadelphia corridor that drains into this magnificent estuary became a megalopolis.  Given my observation of the amazing development during the past forty plus years I was not terribly surprised to learn how much fisheries in the Bay have collapsed since I last collected oyster samples in 1966.  

On the other hand the sad state of Puget Sound came as something of a surprise to me.  The declining native population of fewer than ninety killer whales, a key tourist draw, is expected to die off within about twenty five years, if not before. Apparently the principal suspect for this loss is the buildup in these beautiful animals of PCB’s from Boeing and other WWII industrial operations.

The most obvious parallel between the Puget Sound, Chesapeake and Louisiana systems (especially the latter two) is the role of agricultural runoff and the formation of hypoxic zones within the Bay in their case and along the northern gulf in ours. Regulatory measures to improve municipal sewage treatment, for example in the Potomac River from DC to the Bay, have dramatically improved water quality.  The same thing can be said for the river cities that line the tributaries of the Mississippi River watershed. 

On the other hand, agricultural measures to reduce nutrient runoff into the Bay have always been and remain strictly voluntary and largely ineffectual because the anti-regulatory farm lobby is extremely powerful at the Maryland State Capitol of Annapolis. For example the Perdue company owns a huge integrated chicken production monopoly on the Eastern Shore of Maryland.  

This company has so cleverly managed the law that the company owns and manages every aspect of the chicken “manufacturing” process with one notable exception – the millions of tons of chicken shit generated on Maryland’s Eastern Shore each year and merrily leaching into the Bay! 

manufacturing chicken fingers

Manufacturing chicken fingers - offal is the only thing not owned by the company!

Videotaped rationalizations from Perdue officials on this issue sounded eerily similar to what those of us on the gulf hypoxia task force** have been hearing for many years from representatives of the powerful midwest corn industry. Lobbyists for this industry fight against effective measures to reduce nitrogen runoff within the Mississippi River watershed – measures that would ameliorate gulf hypoxia. 

One takeaway message for me in the Frontline piece was the reminder that at least some of our coastal problems are shared by folks on both the east and left coasts.

Len Bahr

*PCB’s don’t seem to be a serious issue in coastal Louisiana, except perhaps in some specific localized industrial sites, such as the Port of Lake Charles and Avondale Shipyards and the Industrial Canal in New Orleans.

**I’m no longer a member and at this time Louisiana remains unrepresented.

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  1. I watched Poisoned Waters as well Len, and it was a powerful piece of investigative journalism. Being origionally from the North West, the sections on Puget Sound were a sobering reminder of the downsides of explosive population growth. The PCB issue was intriguing. I wonder how much testing has been done in Louisiana – I'd be interested in seeing what the results are from areas such as Bayou Trepagnier, Devil's Swamp, or other areas subject to similar industrial dumping.

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