Opinion

Pollution in our runoff: How much science do we really need? | Guest Column

By JONATHAN WHITE

and JOE GAYDOS

While driving home from a recent stormwater workshop, a friend asked, “Is runoff from my small property really making its way to the ocean and causing damage? My family has lived here 20 years, and we care about the environment as much as anyone. Why is this suddenly becoming a problem?”

It’s a good question, and one that resonates with many of us. When we look to science for the answer, we find that it isn’t always exact enough to show specific effects from specific human behaviors.

While science may not be able to tell us the specific effect of each and every household, it does tell us something unequivocally: that polluted runoff is making its way into our environment in quantities that are measurable and damaging.

Mike Kaill of San Juan Island maintains an aquarium at the end of Spring Street where he keeps anemones, fish, and other marine creatures. The aquarium, used for educational purposes, circulates seawater from the harbor. Several years ago, Mike noticed that some of his critters were dying, so he tested the water. What showed up surprised him. In repeated tests over the last three years, surfactants and other compounds were showing up in lethal doses. Lethal to local marine animals, that is.

In fact, the more people that live on the shoreline, the higher the level of mercury and PCBs we find in rockfish and English sole. The general meal limit recommendation for rockfish throughout the region? One meal per week.

Where are these contaminants coming from? PCBs usually come from legacy industrial sources but other contaminants come from the streets and homes of the islands. They come from fertilizers we put on our grass, detergents we use to wash our dishes and cars and clothes, pharmaceuticals we flush down the toilet, and oil and gas that leak from our car. All this and more shows up in the wild fish that swim our waters, bite our lures, and end up on our dinner plates.

A scientific report commissioned by the Puget Sound Partnership estimates that each day 150,000 pounds of toxins spill into Puget Sound through polluted runoff. It’s hard to get our mind around 150,000 pounds of toxins a day, particularly when we live in a rural county with a relatively small population.

As our friend’s question indicates, it’s especially hard to envision this problem when our individual habits don’t appear to be a significant and traceable part of the problem. This is where science isn’t much help. Science, for example, can’t add color to the detergent I used last weekend to wash my car and follow it down the storm drain — like a stick floating downstream — until it shows up in Mike’s aquarium. But, if we colored the detergent of a hundred neighbors who washed their cars over the last year, maybe the color would show up in the bay. This is what scientists call cumulative effects (some of us know it better as “death by a thousand cuts”). The detergent I used last weekend didn’t kill Mike’s fish, but when you add the habits of many neighbors over many years, it did.

Science is a valuable part of the picture, and we need to keep it up to better understand the many-layered and exquisitely complex elements of our world. But, honestly, how good does the science have to be before we acknowledge that some of our habits are causing damage?

— Jonathan White is a member of the San Juan County Marine Resources Committee and chairman of the Northwest Straits Commission. Joe Gaydos is the director of SeaDoc Society, a member of the Puget Sound Partnership science team, and a governor-appointed member of the Northwest Straits Commission.

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