Half of all streams and coastal sediments in US exceed pollutant guidelines

A new report into the state of the US environment has found that half or more of all streams and coastal sediments have at least one contaminant that exceeded guidelines for aquatic life. The report also revealed that there is insufficient environmental monitoring for authorities to develop sound environmental policies.

The report, by the H John Heinz III Center for Science, Economics and the Environment, was commissioned five years ago by former US President Bill Clinton. It revealed that at least 90% of streams, groundwater, stream and estuarine sediments and freshwater fish sampled contained at least one contaminant at detectable levels. About 15% of streams and 25% of groundwater sites contained these contaminants at levels that exceeded human health standards.

However, the researchers appear to be most concerned about the data that is missing. For instance, there is no data for contamination of saltwater fish, for coral reefs and shellfish beds, the condition of plant and animal communities across the country, or for coastal erosion.

“Just as economic policies are informed through a set of key indicators such as gross domestic product, inflation, unemployment, and the balance of trade, we as a nation must have clear indicators of the condition of our ecosystem as a basis for shaping public policies and private sector initiatives,” said Chairman of the project William Clark, a professor at Harvard University’s John F Kennedy School of Government.

Senior advisor for the project, Tom Jorling, agrees. “Without agreement on what indicators we should use to measure our progress, it is extremely difficult for lawmakers, regulators, and the public to make informed choices about the direction our policies should be taking.” Jorling is also Vice President of Environmental Affairs for International Paper, and a former environmental commissioner in New York State.

Other ‘highlights’ of the report include the finding that about 19% of native animal species and 15% of native plant species are ranked as ‘imperilled’ or ‘critically imperilled’. On the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts wetland acreage declined 8% from the mid-1950s to the mid-1990s, with losses slowing during the 1990s. At least 60% of monitored estuarine areas have levels of contaminants that might harm fish or wildlife, and 2% that probably will harm them.

With regards to human land use, forest production has declined over recent years, although it increased of record levels in the 1980s, and marine fish landings have been declining since the mid-1990s. Agricultural production has been growing faster than the US population growth, and withdrawals of freshwater declined by 10% in the 1980s, but has been increasing slowly since then.

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