Joseph John Macknis was born in November 1946, in Mahoney City, PA.
This was coal mining country and many members of his family worked for the industry. But coal mining is a hard business. In addition to scarring soil and forests and poisoning streams, it is rough on those who work in or support the mines. Traces of coal grit gets into their laundry, their drinking water. It laces the air they breath, entering their lungs with debilitating or even fatal consequences.
This was not to be for Joe, a bright, energetic kid. When it came time for summer jobs, he joined other college-bound youths from the region to work for a chemical company in New Jersey.
“Maybe things weren’t much better there,” he said. “Lots of the guys I worked with were in the organic dyes part of the business, and from day to day the color of their urine would change radically, depending upon which part of the plant they handled chemicals in.”
Few people love life with more enthusiasm than Joe Macknis. In Bloomsburg College, he especially loved girls. Until Susan Elbert, that is. Once she was in his life, there was no other woman. When a lovely woman would pass by at work, we’d say: “Wow, if…” while Joe always said: “That was before Susan. She’s just wonderful.”
At the end of the 1970s, Joe, who was a graduate student at the University of Delaware, was just about the marry Susan. He still needed a job and had heard, and was excited, about a new program funded by Congress through the newly created EPA.
The aim of the program was to investigate the problems that were leading to the Bay’s decline and to link policy and science, which was exactly where Joe’s career was taking him. On the day before his their honeymoon he got the call that the job would be waiting for his return.
Joe dug in with the characteristic verve that would never leave him.
It was widely believed at the time that industrial pollution, especially toxics, was the root cause of the Bay’s decline. Joe’s task was to investigate and document the sources of contaminants, and to accumulate them in a massive database, an effort he tackled tirelessly. Joe was key to discovering the link between the problems the nutrients, nitrogen and phosphorus, the amounts of which were huge and increasing.
Opposition was widespread. Farmers howled, municipalities and the EPA shrieked disbelief and politicians sought ways to make the whole thing go away.
During the long process of crafting the Chesapeake Bay Program, Macknis and a few others remained steadfast to their goals. They worked long hours, shifted from one office to another, were uncertain of continuing pay checks and faced the loss of both their files and the computer support needed to continue making their case.
When I joined this struggling group, we were so jammed into one room at the EPA’s Bestgate Road Laboratory that we took turns rolling our chairs back from our desks so as not to collide. Joe and colleague Gail Mackiernan, looking at the floor plan for our next anticipated office move, marked a janitor’s closet “Mountford’s office.”
Finally, wise leaders, including U.S. Sen. Charles “Mac” Mathias, then-Maryland Gov. Harry Hughes, Maryland State Sen. Bernie Fowler and citizen-activist Frances Flanigan took the fight public to craft the Bay Program, which today sustains the Chesapeake restoration effort.
Joe’s focus on point source nutrients led him into the forefront of another battle: to reduce phosphorus entering wastewater plants. Some people had suggested taking phosphorus out of detergent.
“His calculation,” said Mackiernan, now the retired assistant director of the Maryland Sea Grant Program, “indicated that a ban on the use of phosphate-based detergents would reduce inputs of point source phosphorus by a considerable percentage.”
The soap and detergent industry, which had interests in phosphate mining as well as the detergent factories, lobbied against it at every opportunity. They predicted dirty laundry and said the grit of nonphosphate builders in replacement products would ruin fabrics while not cutting phosphorus very much.
“However,” Mackiernan continued, “Joe and the EPA prevailed and a staged basinwide phosphorus detergent ban went into effect... The first year, phosphorus inputs from wastewater treatment plants went down 25–30 percent … As I recall, the new detergents did not cost any more and as far as any of us could tell, cleaned as well as before.” Looking for ways to reduce nutrients quickly and efficiently, Joe was one of the earliest contacts for Virginia Polytechnic Institute Professor Clifford Randall, who proposed importing a technique being tried in South Africa, called biological nutrient removal, or collectively with other technologies, BNR.
Joe worked closely with Randall to fund the installation, operation and a data analysis of the first U.S. pilot plant for this technology on Virginia’s York River. The results exceeded expectations.
Several years ago, Joe served as a Bay Program monitoring coordinator and was charged with sustaining what is still the worlds’ most comprehensive long-term estuarine data archive. While there, he was under great stress as management and politics sought to “save the money” spent on monitoring and apply it elsewhere.
One day in 1997, he told close friends in his office that he had cancer, and later announced it widely. He received the universal support and affection he deserved.
Joe did not associate his environmental history or employment stress with his colon cancer. “Just luck, I think,” was his comment.
It was not an easy climb back to health, but visiting him in the hospital, then-Bay Pro gram Director Bill Matuszeski sent an e-mail to all staff recommending we visit ourselves and “enter Joe’s remarkable circle of light.”
When chemotherapy presaged the loss of his bold dark shock of hair, Joe and his son, Paul, made a guy thing of it and both got punk-rocker shaved heads. Paul, a teen-age wrestler, thought it was cool. Susan and their daughter, Joanna, declined.
Joe’s eventual remission was amazing, and he resumed his normal tennis games, biked to work and swam in the Bay each week from early spring to fall. Joe once said, “I figure that if you exercise using the same routine each day, and keep it up, you’ll just be able to keep it up indefinitely.”
Unfortunately, Joe’s cancer reoccurred around 1999, this time spreading to his chest and organs where even strenuous treatment, and Joe’s application of indomitable spirit and spirituality could not conquer it. He continued to work hard managing grants for the EPA, then part time, and eventually, from a computer at home.
On New Years’ Day 2000, on a New Jersey Shore holiday Joe (and most of his fellow celebrants) plunged into the ocean to inaugurate the new millennium.
Joe, an intensely masculine guy, sought hugs from all of us at work during his treatment and recovery, and we were glad to share our energy with him. He also had a lot of contact with colleagues during his time at home, support borne of the love and friendship he offered to all. This June, three friends and I had a long discussion with him on the Bay Program’s future. His legacy of hard work, loyalty and perseverance inspires all of us who plan for the Bay’s future.
My thoughts run go back to a decade ago, during a Bay Program staff retreat at the Donaldson Brown Center, located in an old mansion overlooking the Susquehanna River Gorge near Port Deposit, MD. Very early on the second morning, Joe and I, frustrated by the bureaucracy, walked out to the cliff of ancient rock which rises almost 200 feet above the river. We wanted to experience, for a few moments, the real Chesapeake.
While the sky above was clear and the sun behind us bright, the entire river valley was filled with dense fog and there was only white, all the way to the opposite rim nearly a mile distant. As we reached the edge of this outcrop, in an instant our own shadows appeared greatly elongated and slowly undulating across the mist, a phenomenon known as the “Brocken specter.”
With the sun directly at our backs, a rainbow halo (a glory or “Brocken bow”) appeared, reflected from the billions of water droplets in the fog surrounding us. We raised our arms like wings, swinging them through an arc, reaching toward the rainbow. As scientists, we understood exactly what had happened, but it was still immensely moving. In moments, the mist evaporated, revealing the river, tracked with cat’s paws of morning wind and furrowed by the wakes of two boats.
We discussed how aboriginal peoples, encountering such phenomena might have believed such imagery a manifestation and message from the Great Spirit, taking it to be a sign of special power or favor.
He died at home July 1. All of us who knew and loved him lost a solid and supportive friend.
Dr. Kent Mountford is former Chesapeake Bay Program senior scientist and was a colleague of Joe Macknis for 20 years.