Studies find less biodiversity when road salt reaches waterways

Biological diversity appears to suffer in freshwater streams and swamps tainted by road salt, according to studies in Maryland  and Massachusetts.

The research includes a study of Sideling Hill Creek, a pristine stream in western Maryland that contains the state's broadest assortment of freshwater mussels and a federally endangered aquatic wildflower called harperella.

The salt industry acknowledged the possibility of harm to roadside vegetation from the 14 million tons of de-icing salt poured on U.S. highways annually, and said it is committed to educating highway agencies about using the product responsibly.

The research, which is preliminary, should be of interest to road departments and drivers nationwide, said Rodney Bartgis, mid-Appalachian bioreserve manager for The Nature Conservancy. The Arlington, VA-based conservation organization is involved in both studies.

Sideling Hill Creek, which originates in Pennsylvania and flows to thePotomac River, is crossed in Maryland by Interstate 68 in a region prone to winter ice and snow. Since March 1996, researchers led by Frostburg State University biologist Richard Raesly have been monitoring the chemistry and biology of Sideling Hill and two nearby creeks at sites upstream from the highway, just beneath the crossing and downstream from the road.

Their data from 1996-97 showed that the number of fish species downstream from the highway fluctuated more than in the upstream section. Downstream fish diversity was lowest in the late winter and early spring, after the winter highway salting season caused heavy runoff of sodium chloride into the streams.

"After you get these big inputs of salt, it seems like some of these species are moving out of the area and then the site recovers somewhat," Raesly said.

He's waiting to see if this winter's data produce the same results. The study hasn't yet revealed whether elevated chloride levels from road salt are affecting the stream's rare mussels or harperella.

In Massachusetts, Nature Conservancy scientists studied vegetation in the Kampoosa Bog, a wetland in Stockbridge crossed by the Massachusetts Turnpike. They found that marshy areas with the highest salt concentration had been invaded by a non-native species, the 15-food giant reed, which crowded out native species, according to Frank Lowenstein, a Nature Conservancy official who oversaw the project.

"It certainly indicates road salt may be playing a big role in allowing these non-native species to come in. The non-native species in turn are excluding some of the native species." he said.

The 1996 study was funded by the U.S. Fish &Wildlife Service, Lowenstein said. His organization is working with the University of Massachusetts on a follow-up study funded by the state.

Salt can sometimes harm nearby vegetation on roadways by interfering with a plant's moisture absorption from soil, according to the Salt Institute, an industry trade group in Alexandria, VA.

Satellite maps show effects of development on weather

The surrender of farmland and open space to development has more than an effect on the eye - it can make a difference in the weather, a Penn State University professor says.

Vegetation and cropland absorb water into the ground and help cool the earth, meteorology expert Toby Carlson said after a recent presentation at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Philadelphia.

But throw up roads, concrete sidewalks, asphalt driveways and house foundations and the cooling cycle is halted. In return, the climate becomes noticeably warmer.

Carlson and his colleagues are using a computer model to pinpoint development in eastern Pennsylvania and investigate its effect on microclimates - the weather in a very specific area. They're sharing their findings with urban planners from across the region.

The animated program is impressive. Viewed from satellite images taken from thousands of miles above the earth and highlighted in red, the urban sprawl of southeastern Pennsylvania in 1997 looks like a big virus. Jump ahead 50 years or so through the animation and the virus appears terminal.

Watching it is like watching a bad 1950s horror movie, as the blob of future commercial and residential growth crawls along roadways. Coming west from Philadelphia and Wilmington, Del., it envelops Delaware and Montgomery counties before swallowing Chester County and encroaching on Lancaster and Berks counties.

With each new screen, farmland and bare soil disappear, only to be replaced by representations of future housing developments, strip malls and parking lots.

From a meteorology standpoint, a new housing development is as hot, dry and barren as a desert, Carlson said.

"Then lawns and trees are planted (during landscaping) and the situation gets better but it never gets back to the microclimate of the agricultural fields," he said. "It always stays warmer and drier."

In addition, the concrete and asphalt surfaces are impervious to water, so heavy rain creates the potential for local flash flooding.

Carlson emphasized he is not preaching doom and gloom to city and regional planners. Instead, he wanted to present them with another tool to use as they try to intelligently map out the future.

A duck pond here and a garden there, he said, are crucial to maintaining normal microclimates. "Vegetation is really the mitigating factor here.Planting trees and bushes, keeping farmland where we can. The land is so valuable."

The Penn State program uses NASA satellite images taken over eastern Pennsylvania between 1987 and 1996. Carlson and his associates then supplement the maps with local terrain, roads, bodies of water and protected areas.

Gilmore backs measures to support environment

Jim Gilmore is no George Allen, and the new Virginia governor wants to show it by supporting a series of environmental measures that will help him mend fences with environmentalists who battled the conservative Allen constantly.

So far, Gilmore has:

  • Backed a bill that would give the attorney general the power to prosecute polluters.
  • Asked the state police to conduct an investigation into the Department of Environmental Quality's consulting contracts with a one-time campaign treasurer for Allen.
  • Refused to rehire Becky Norton Dunlop, Allen's combative environmental secretary.

"In a whole series of policy areas, Gilmore has been sending out the signal that he's no George Allen," said University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato. "Taking a hard line on the environment can only hurt a politician over time. That's what Allen did, and Gilmore is determined not to repeat the same mistake."

Pollution fines in Virginia dropped from $327,286 in 1992, the year before Allen was elected, to $4,000 in 1996. Environmentalists often cite the figure as evidence of lax enforcement.

Since winning the election, Gilmore has taken the time to meet with environmentalists and discuss their concerns, said Albert C. Pollard Jr., a lobbyist for the Virginia chapter of the Sierra Club.

But environmentalists said they were disappointed that Gilmore had not supported a bill that would authorize the State Water Control Board to regulate the disposal of poultry waste within the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

EPA tells WV to improve water quality or risk takeover

West Virginia Gov. Cecil Underwood needs to make improving the state's rivers and streams a high priority, a federal environmental official said.

Underwood received a letter from the EPA March 10 expressing concern over  "a continuing decline in the water quality protection provided in the state of West Virginia," wrote EPA Region III Administrator W. Michael McCabe.

The letter faulted Underwood for not pushing for more funding in the state Department of Environmental Protection. If steps aren't taken quickly to help West Virginia meet federal requirements mandated by the Clean Water Act, federal regulators could take over the state's water quality protection program, McCabe said.

That translates into residents and regulated companies having to take their concerns and complaints to EPA officials in Philadelphia, instead of DEP offices in Charleston.

"EPA's message is more than a warning shot," said Wendy Radcliff, DEP environmental advocate. "It looks like they're ready to start the battle for the water program. If industry thinks DEP is slow to approve water permits, wait until they have to go to Philadelphia to get them."

Underwood spokesman Dan Page said the governor is not ignoring the EPA's warnings. "We are obviously going to review information in the letter andwill respond upon completing that task," he said. Despite recent pressure from federal environmental officials, Underwood did not include in his budget a $1 million request from the DEP Office of Water Resources for new computers. And officials say that amount would come nowhere near what's necessary to meet the Clean Water Act's requirements.

Currently, about $6.5 million of the DEP's $112 million yearly spending comes from state general revenue funds.