In our discussions of how we can reduce the Bay’s nitrogen load, one element that seems difficult for us to grasp is the whole issue of airborne sources. Yet the 97.5 million pounds—roughly a third of the Bay’s nitrogen burden—that first comes crashing down on our land, roofs, streets and heads each year should be very difficult for us to ignore.

Code Purple—very unhealthy—air days have become an all-too-familiar, chronic feature of summer in our region. Their devastating impact on human and Bay health makes it impossible for us to continue our head-in-the-sand approach to air quality.

We overlook this reduction opportunity for a number of reasons.

First, it is complicated, both in terms of the multiplicity of its origins and the technology of its solutions. While there are elements of truth in this claim, should a region whose minds won the race to map the human genome; developed and implemented biological nutrient reduction technologies for sewage treatment plants; and found a way to turn chicken manure into an asset be intellectually daunted by this challenge?

There is also a falsely created perception that solutions are unduly expensive. The question here is too expensive for whom? The EPA has pegged the price of taking one pound of nitrogen out of urban stormwater at about $150 per pound — an expense theoretically borne by all Bay citizens.

In sharp contrast, the projected cost to industry of removing 70–75 percent of the airborne nitrogen from the tall stacks of the airshed’s coal-burning power plants ranges from $1–$3 per pound—a cost spread all over the airshed, which includes a huge chunk of the eastern United States stretching as far west as Chicago.

The story is really the same for mobile sources. Cutting tailpipe emissions of nitrogen is basically a function of increasing the volume of catalytic converters and the amount of reactive metals—all doable within the current limits of technology.

Spending roughly $100 per vehicle produces an 80 percent reduction in nitrogen emissions. Back-of-the-envelope calculations puts the average cost per pound of nitrogen removed at just shy of a dollar if that vehicle is driven 50,000 miles. Here again, it is a cost that is wildly lower and is borne by the polluter.
The take-home message here is that developing a strategy that focuses on stopping nitrogen flow from stacks and tailpipes will help human and Bay health. This approach is also one of the cheapest for society and spreads the cost more equitably.

Yet, despite the very real need for this pollution prevention and the inherent logic and foundation in public good of this approach, the energy and automotive lobbies would likely block any attempts at federal legislation to facilitate this move. A case in point was the auto makers’ recent squashing of efforts to increase national average fuel-efficiency standards.

So should Bay-lovers and Bay stakeholders throw up their hands in disgust, abandon the promise that air pollution prevention offers, and shortchange the Bay and the health of future generations? The answer is: No, we just have to work harder and smarter.

For more than a generation, the traditional saw has been to use legislation and regulation at the federal level to effect national change in environmental policy. It is a good approach that has served society well, but as climate change advocates have found—even in the presence of a preponderance of compelling scientific evidence —the political will to produce federal fixes for pollution may be lacking.

The good news is that states like California, Massachusetts and Texas are taking the bull by the horns and enacting state legislation to limit greenhouse gas emissions from mobile and stationary sources.

This model could also work in Bay states for airborne nitrogen in addition to greenhouse gases.

It is a good approach, and there is really a pressing incentive. Some areas, specifically the Baltimore-D.C. metropolitan region, are one year away from having federal funding for transportation projects jerked away because they are non-compliant with air standards. We’ve had far too many Code Red/Purple days—those days when it is unhealthy for all humans to be out and about—to be in compliance.

Some at this point would argue: Why regulations? Can’t we accomplish this nitrogen reduction via voluntary means?

The answer is: Yes we could, but we have very few examples where something like this has worked in the absence of the cocked two-by-four of regulations.

Car manufacturers and power plant owners have always been able to do this voluntarily, but we’ve seen darn few low nitrogen SUVs in the watershed, and fewer still low-nitrogen, coal-fired power plants.

We can always hope that some corporation will step forward with either of these or an after-market catalytic converter that is a little bigger and knocks a little more nitrogen out of the air, but don’t hold your breath.

So what is needed? That’s simple: Bay citizens who care about their health and the health of the Bay need to convince lawmakers and public leaders that enough is enough and we want to breathe freely.

We want laws that limit emissions from stationary and mobile air pollution sources both within our watershed and outside. We want incentive programs that will help industry provide less-polluting options such as more hybrid and electric cars and environmentally friendly energy choices.

The sad truth illustrated by the above is that human nature usually means well, but our society functions more responsibly for the public’s good in the presence of rules that set boundaries to our behavior.

In addition, we also have to look deep within ourselves and our lives. We need to drive a little less and conserve a little more.

Carpool once in a while and realize that each driver mile you forgo takes a gram of nitrogen out of the Bay’s burden. Do this for 500 miles and you’ve taken out roughly a pound.

Use and support public transportation and overall cut harmful consumption where possible, including driving at excessive speeds.

In essence, set a personal nitrogen budget and stick to it. You might find that you also end up saving some money, which is not so bad in this time of crashing stocks and financial travails.

The Chesapeake Bay and its citizens have a right to expect clean air and water.

Further, they should have an expectation that government at all levels is doing all it can to ensure—in the most economically efficient and effective manner possible— that the environment where we live, work and play is safe and healthy. To do otherwise robs the Bay and future generations.