Scottish engineer James Watt (1736-1819), in the latter part of the 18th century, developed a steam engine that harnessed the power of confined steam, expanding from a reservoir of boiling water, to drive a piston through a cylinder and operate a pump that could remove water from flooded English coal mines. Energy from coal replaced the work of the horses that used to operate the pumps. The work of the pump became what we define today as a horsepower, the force required to raise 33,000 pounds at the rate of one foot per minute.
Steam became a powerful force in the United States as well. Charles Reeder, of Fed eral Hill in Baltimore, built steam engines, including the one for the 130-foot Chesapeake,the Bay’s first commercial steamboat.
By 1836, the steamboat George Washington was also providing service from Philadelphia to Baltimore. By the middle of the 19th century, ships powered or assisted by steam engines began to outpace the age of sail. Transoceanic schedules became feasible and vessels could increasingly escape, rather than be at the mercy of, adverse winds. Steam would also became one of the powerful tools used to harvest, then literally mine the Chesapeake’s oysters.
In a region where water highways long dominated those on land, steamships made the Bay a major commerce route almost to the mid-20th century. Subsequently, power has been produced by internal combustion engines, where atomized and ignited fuel burns directly in the cylinder. Cars trucks and boats today largely use this system, which seriously pollutes our air and water.
The first North American railroad, the B&O, competed head to head with, and quickly overwhelmed the region’s recently completed network of barge canals. Rails carried timber, coal, commerce, passengers and eventually Pennsylvania oil to all of the continent. Early rains were fueled by wood — an engine burned around 53 pounds of wood per mile — and their tracks were supported by wooden ties renewed about every six years by the decimation of Chesapeake forests.
When electricity began illuminating the United States, steam was the primary power which turned turbines and generators. Today, we almost equate electricity with power.
Modern electrical usage defines a horsepower as 746 watts, a unit named after Watt. Your microwave might very well require a “horsepower” in watts to heat that morning cup of coffee. Consider that when you leave a few lights on (500 watts), or as you vegetate for hours in front of the color television (112 watts). Our environment must absorb the effects and wastes from generating that power, a process in which Watt’s steam engine is still vitally involved.
I have led you to this point for a reason. Although these columns are not intended to be a series of obituaries, when people of our era have made significant marks on the Chesapeake, it is appropriate that we honor them. Recently, I’ve written about oceanographer Donald W. Pritchard and crustacean biologists L. Eugene Cronin and Austin Williams. All of them have passed over the bar, and we have lost that part of their accumulated wisdom which could be communicated face to face, and which far exceeded their published contributions.
So it is with another longtime friend, the crusty, sometimes irascible Willem H. Roosenburg.
I first met Roosenburg about 1968 at a workshop on thermal pollution in the Chesapeake Bay, which took place during a period when electrical energy generation was in exponential growth, and the concern for waste heat injected into the estuary was rising in the public eye. The Bay watershed was really just beginning its rapid expansion, with the Washington and Baltimore Beltways still being constructed, and suburban sprawl yet unrecognized as the threat it is today.
The demand for more power was very strong in those years, and the environmental movement was relatively new and weak. Federal regulatory mechanisms were largely undeveloped by the Federal Water Quality Control Administration in a time before the Clean Water Act and the EPA even existed.
In the late 1960s, with proposals then on the table, there could have been a dozen major generating stations pumping out billions of gallons of heated water daily. Some plants raised water temperature 20 degrees Fahrenheit, so that in Chesapeake summers, discharge plumes could exceed 100 degrees, lethal to many, especially juvenile, Bay species. The plants also drew is unimaginable volumes of water, and the organisms that passed through the condenser systems were often injured or killed. The demand for electric power dominated all considerations.
The Bay’s scientific organizations struggled to develop information that would contribute to the understanding of the environmental effects and raise public awareness about the potential hazard to the Bay’s living resources.
Roosenburg was in the thick of this work. This was a time when laboratories’ technical and mechanical staff, which were separate from the degreed research staff, could advance and have successful careers without academic credentials. These faculty research assistant posts had a “glass ceiling” which though resented, were still good career slots. Although Roosenburg never earned a Ph.D., his expertise and experience allowed him to help and train many young people who came through the Chesapeake Biological Labor atory in the process of getting their own. He also “trained up,” or at least inspired, his own son, Dr. Willem M. Roosenburg, to a career in science where he is an enthusiastic researcher and a recognized world expert on the diamondback terrapin, Malclemys terrapin.
In the early years of “thermal addition research,” people simply exposed organisms to the higher anticipated temperatures and waited to see what would happen. In one such experiment, Roosenburg and colleagues looked at oysters in the warmed discharge plume of a power plant.
An oyster’s condition was often assessed by the visual quality of the shucked meat. It still is, but more recent analyses also include tissue analysis, biochemical and nutritional measures made to high laboratory standards. In CBL experiments, Roosenburg noticed that, when shucked, the oyster’s tissues had turned a striking green. “Why,” some said, “that’s just the microscopic plankton algae that the oysters are filtering out of a fertile Chesapeake.”
Roosenburg was unconvinced, and he sought help from colleagues working in the relatively new field of metals analysis, who were just beginning to understand the realities and mechanisms of bioaccumulation. It wasn’t long before the green color was traced to copper accumulation in the shellfish tissue. Large accumulations. His paper on the subject raised not only his own shrubby eyebrows, but those of a good many others in the field.
Power generation — even in power plants — requires boiling water to create steam, which flows at high pressure to turn turbines (or generators) that yield the needed power. To turn the steam back into water, it passes through a forest of metal condenser tubes, in which cool water flows from the adjacent river or Bay. The steam condenses back to water and is conducted back to the boiler. In those years, the power plant in question used tubes of an aluminum and brass alloy. Brass, of course, is largely copper. These tubes, while rustproof, quickly degraded and began to perforate in the presence of hot salty water. Periodically, the plant was shut down and the tubes, or a subset of them, replaced. Those metals went somewhere, but in the billions of gallons of water flowing by, who would think...?
We know today that metals are toxic, especially those accumulating in the tissues of living organisms, where they can have serious physiological and ecological effects. An early group of consultants for the power plant conducted their own experiments by hanging shellfish in trays adjacent to the discharge. When the potential for results negative to plant owner’s interests was suspected, such experiments could be ended as “unauthorized” work.
Man’s release of copper into the environment from many sources has left a significant environmental record in the Chesapeake. The use of copper escalated in the 19th and early 20th centuries for roofing and gutter materials, manufacturing processes, the proliferation of copper plumbing and the use of copper-based antifouling paints on ships and boats.
The Chesapeake Bay Program (Dr. Richard Eskin et al. 1994) mapped the distribution of copper concentrations in sediments Baywide. It’s clear that levels are greatly elevated, and environmentally significant, near the Bay’s “Regions of Toxic Concern” around the Patapsco estuary, the upper Potomac and near Norfolk-Hampton Roads, VA.
Jeff Cornwell, at the University of Maryland’s Horn Point Laboratory, analyzed copper concentrations at a series of depths from a core that was driven deep into the floor of Chesapeake Bay, back to sediments deposited a century and a quarter ago. This core site, located off the Choptank River, is miles from any direct sources of copper but shows how widespread the distribution could be. His data show that about the beginning of the 20th century, concentrations passed a threshold for adverse effects on the environment. They continued to increase until 1970. It’s a hopeful sign that the decline over a subsequent two decades has been generally steady.
After considerable posturing, the power generation industry took on a more active and environmentally sensitive role, changing condenser tube alloys, first to considerably more expensive (and durable) 70 percent copper and 30 percent nickel, and later to virtually indestructible titanium, a shift that is still under way.
Many utilities have also established their own sound and extensive monitoring and research programs to mitigate effects of all kinds. Plant engineering structures were designed to help protect fish, and air emissions have been reduced. Some of the warmed power plant water is used by one hatchery to raise estuarine fish species in the winter.
Bill Roosenburg was one of the alert Chesapeake researchers who followed up on an observation, went against conventional assumptions and helped to further the process of public awareness and environmental responsibility. In both his personal and professional life, he was a continuous advocate for protecting watersheds and natural resources. He fought repeated battles for the Patuxent River, helped the Nature Conservancy to acquire and preserve the Battle Creek Cypress Swamp and was an advocate for the recently preserved Chapman’s Forest on the Potomac.
Roosenburg came out of youth and the war years as a Dutch farm boy, well-schooled in animal husbandry. About a quarter century ago, he drew on that experience and delivered a paper saying that oysters should also be farmed and bred to a pedigree like other livestock. He was ahead of his time in espousing aquaculture and the kind of genetic selection which is today working toward oysters resistant to the decimating diseases MSX and dermo. According to his colleague Dr. Joe Mihurski, he would exclaim: “These oysters have got to live, too!”
During the “Millennium Winter” of 1977, the Patuxent, and most of the Chesapeake and her oysters were locked in heavy ice, some places remaining frozen for two months. Roosenburg, the quintessential Dutchman, had skated the Netherlands’s canals and polders as a youth. He loved the sport, and took this opportunity to skate with his son on the river he’d long championed. He skated on the creeks, then on the mainstem itself downriver, an alongshore course of nearly four and a half miles, from Broome’s Island, to Petersen Point at the mouth of St. Leonard Creek, whence he would head up another couple of miles to the house of his Dutch compatriot, Arie deKok.
Ice on some parts of the frozen Patuxent system, notably the peripheral creeks and coves, had reached thicknesses of more than a foot, in some places 14.25", which is about the theoretical maximum that ice can reach at latitude 38 degrees north. However, where the shoal and oyster bar at Petersen Point came near the surface, tidal currents thus constricted greatly increased in velocity. Unfrozen Bay water was just a degree or two warmer than the overlying ice, and the result was continual subsurface erosion. Unsuspecting, Roosenburg plunged through the thinning ice.
He was lucky, though, and got back onto firmer ice, and partly wet, skated on to deKok’s to warm up and dry out.
In the years during and after World War II, we used to see cigarettes on the silver screen as social symbol, aphrodisiac and comfort. The prisoner was always given time for a last cigarette before slumping under the firing squad’s merciless bullets. Roosenburg came out of those terrible war years and personally experienced his homeland under the heel of a deadly and violent oppressor.
As a brash and restive youth he was part of the Resistance Movement against the Nazis. There were times when his life could easily have been forfeited. He told me he’d once hid inside an unused coffin as troops searched the building. In moments of refuge, tobacco was a comfort and a stimulant against fatigue, easily carried in a pocket, gratefully given and shared with friends; moments of peace and solitude stolen from days or months in the terror of one’s life. Life might be very short; take what comfort you can. Seize the moment.
Like millions worldwide, Roosenburg continued with habit and accepted the solace of smoking through most of the years I knew him. In conversation, his unkempt shock of hair and bushy eyebrows were often wreathed in smoke. Roosenburg lived into a long and active retirement along his beloved Patuxent River, but lung cancer caught up with and took him ahead of what should have been his time. He died this February in his home overlooking the Patuxent as ice locked its coves and Southern Maryland lay under a blanket of snow.