The Unspoken Price Tag
2017, High School, Prose
I was bobbing over waves in my inner tube with one sister clinging to my arm, the other sitting astride a boogie board nearby, and my other two sisters designing a castle in the sand. The waves were beautiful, and their morphing shapes reflected the sunlight in a radiant dance. It was midday, so the waves were weak and playful with the toddlers in the sand, and a disappointment to the teenagers hoping to ride one to shore. I was among the high schoolers staring relentlessly at the horizon, watching each wave build with my hopes, then crash all too close to the shore. My focus was diverted too far out from the beach for me to notice a change in the waters circling directly in front of me.
My dad noticed the discoloration of the water first. He ran toward my sisters and me and began to motion for us to come to shore. I hesitated, hoping to ride a wave in. But as the urgency in my dad’s voice heightened, I looked out at the next wave building on the horizon and gaped at the hideous foam gurgling like a monster’s maw atop the crest of the wave. It was brown and frothy, almost solidified with gunk. I turned and ran toward my dad as the wave broke against my back. Grimacing as the dark sludge circled around me, I raced toward my towel and dried away the ‘water.’
“What’s going on?” I called to my dad, who was walking up to me with the last of my sisters. He merely nodded his head to the right. There was a wall of sand blocking the view, but I could hear the machinery at work in the nearby channel.
“They’re dredging up the ocean,” he said with a casual note of observation. My eyes scanned from the sand embankment back to the water, following the black sludge as it drifted with the current to the merry beach-goers. The waves had stopped dancing. They were choking their former playmates with a charcoal-black foam that clung to its victims and clawed its way onto the beach.
I researched ocean dredging a while later, not only to understand what was causing the blackened waves, but also to realize what each child in the water had been exposed to that day. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, dredging is simply the removal of debris and sediment from the bottom of a harbor or channel with the intent of increasing its depth (“What is dredging?”). Heavier boats carry larger loads of goods to sell for more money, hence the need for deeper channels to make room for the bloated bellies of passing ships.
The environmental costs of dredging include sedimentation pollution from the disturbed debris, which clots fish gills and blocks sunlight, and the disruption of settled toxins so that they disperse among the aquatic life and children on the beach. The UK Marine Special Areas of Conservation credits dredging with releasing contaminants that have been locked into the seabed sediment of ports and harbors, including heavy metals, oil, TBT, PCBs, and pesticides (“Dredging and Disposal”). But no worries, because the boats are safe.
Although dredging swirls pollutants into the marine environment for a widely dispersed toxic cocktail, pollution begins in human homes and industries. The chemicals that dominate our daily lives pass into our rivers and dump into our ocean. In my own city of Pittsburgh, frequent rainstorms overflow the combined sewage and storm drainage system into the Allegheny, Monongahela, and Ohio River. According to a water-quality monitoring report from the Allegheny County Health Department, “fecal-indicator bacteria concentrations of E. Coli and FC [fecal coliform] during wet-weather events exceeded State and Federal water-quality standards,” signifying sewage contamination and its resultant disease risks (Fulton & Buckwalter). As I walk along the Pittsburgh river trails, my view of the water is obstructed every 20 feet by warning signs that caution swimmers and boaters of the water’s dangers after rain. However, the most potent reminder of the river’s filth is the stench. While it is comforting to remember that the river flows away and out of my city, a swim in the ocean reminds me that the sewage and urban runoff from Pittsburgh washes onto foreign shores around the globe.
Miles away from Pittsburgh’s flooded drainage system, the excess nitrogen and phosphorus from sewage results in the eutrophication of rivers and ultimately, the ocean. As rivers flow past farms, fertilizer run-off and manure from livestock adds to the excessive nutrients in waterways. The build-up of sewage and fertilizer dumps into the ocean at the mouth of the river. Algal blooms flourish to blanket the nutrient-rich waters, and bacteria feast on the continuous supply of decaying plant bodies. As oxygen levels plummet from bacterial respiration, the hypoxic water can no longer oxygenate other forms of life, such as fish. A dead zone is born, such as the lifeless mouth of the Mississippi River in the Gulf of Mexico. Our ocean is at the mercy of our rivers, and our rivers are at the mercy of our actions.
The Earth’s natural lines of defense against water pollution have largely been lost to shopping malls and farms. The United States Geological Survey found that approximately half of America’s original wetland habitats have been destroyed (“Louisiana Coastal Wetlands”). While some have been filled for agriculture, grazing, or development, other have been dredged for canals (“Louisiana Coastal Wetlands”). In exchange for monetary profit, we have lost our natural purifiers, which absorb excess nutrients and trap pollutants. We have lost our flood barriers, which are able to hold and store water that would otherwise destroy homes. We have lost the nurseries and breeding grounds where the fish we eat restock and sustain their populations. Finally, we have lost the last natural defender of our oceans.
The ocean’s health ripples far beyond our direct water uses. The oil that powers our cars begins in a teetering boat on the ocean, and the coal that lights our homes ends as dissolved carbon dioxide in the earth’s greatest carbon reservoir. Our demand for fossil fuels makes the ocean an unwilling participant in its own destruction.
The dangers of oil are often overlooked in favor of its benefits. I can remember the images that followed the BP oil spill of 2010, which filled the Gulf of Mexico with over 200 million gallons of oil (“BP Oil Disaster”). I saw oceans as black as ash and unrecognizable bodies strewn across drowned beaches. According to the Restore the Mississippi River Delta organization, the spill led to the ghastly death tolls of 20,000 to 60,000 Kemp’s Ridley sea turtles and 800,000 birds, as well as double the usual rate of wetland loss in the Barataria Bay (“BP Oil Disaster”). Unfortunately, fossil fuels and the consequences of their use have become a standard, so it’s time to raise the bar.
Although the majority of America’s electricity is produced by spewing countless gallons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, few individuals put any thought into flipping on a light switch. The ocean is the world’s main carbon sequester, with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) estimating that 25% of human-produced carbon dioxide dissolves into the finite ocean (Ireland). The ocean is protecting us from the disastrous effects of global warming, but at a price. By dissolving atmospheric carbon dioxide to form carbonic acid, the ocean sacrifices its optimum pH levels. The NRDC asserts that acidic waters cause poor calcium carbonate shell and skeleton development in animals such as mollusks, crabs, and corals (Ireland). As a result, the human demand for fossil fuels leads to loss of profit in oyster and crab industries, as well as empty ecological roles because of decreased biodiversity. Turning on a light is not without consequences, so it should never be done thoughtlessly.
While the implications of our actions at home reverberate through the world’s shared ocean, so do our solutions. The reconstruction of wetlands would allow for the natural assimilation of nitrogen and phosphorus into the roots of aquatic plants. The absorption of the river’s excess nutrients by plants would reduce the effects of eutrophication at the river’s mouth. Wetland restoration to control eutrophication is our only hope for the long-term revival of the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. Rebuilding the habitats and vegetation that once dominated America will enable the ocean to rebuild its own strength and vitality.
The construction of riparian buffers, many of which have been replaced with coastal development, would offer natural support for the soil around rivers. Anchored soil prevents the sedimentation pollution that erosion inflicts upon waterways. Preventing soil loss around important waterways would reduce the need for dredging channels and harbors. In agricultural areas, a riparian buffer concentrates the power of wetlands on the banks of rivers. Runaway nutrients from fertilizers and manure would feed the plants on the river’s edge as opposed to the algal bloom miles downstream at the river’s mouth. Some farmers have the potential to practice controlled logging or harvesting of fruits and vegetables grown within a riparian buffer zone, so that both the environment and the farmer profit.
Environmental solutions often collide with economic interests, but align with human interests. Pittsburgh’s chronically overflowing drainage system demands an expensive overhaul, although low-flow toilets and shower heads could limit the stress put on the city’s combined piping. However, politicians will not prioritize an economically friendly drainage system, nor will industries choose to install higher-priced low-flow appliances, without public concern and action. Demand for a healthy ocean begins with the power of the people. Sometimes our most heroic actions for the ocean are a vote or protest in our own cities.
An individual’s choice to turn off unneeded lights and appliances has power beyond a lowered utility bill. The permanent prevention of fossil fuel hazards is only possible through the gradual replacement of fossil fuels with renewable, clean energy sources. In the meantime, careful management of individual gas consumption as well as active protests in politics for tighter oil rig and transportation regulations are our only hope. One energy efficient choice for consumers is the hybrid car, which reduces fuel consumption in favor of renewably generated electricity. The ocean is worth more than excessive air conditioner use in the summer, and the environmental costs of oil consumption could never be contained in a $2.49 per gallon price tag. It is up to each individual to see the true costs of fossil fuel combustion, and to determine
whether each mile and light bulb is worth it.
The activism of Pittsburgh’s people in favor of separate sewage and city drainage systems would salvage the health of organisms downstream, including those living in the distant ocean. A farmer’s decision to plant a riparian buffer zone or wetland could allow life to return to the Mississippi delta’s dead zone. Your vote could end a city’s sewage overflows. Energy efficiency is a choice that each individual and industry must make on their own. We depend on the ocean for food, for the hydrological cycle that sustains all life on Earth, for temperature regulation, for beauty and pleasure. Our payment for damaging the ocean may be more than what’s listed on the price tag.
The costs of every action are never fully felt by the offender, but they pollute the resources that we all share. Hardin’s The Tragedy of the Commons describes our downfall as our submission to exploitative greed. The commons can only succeed if all of its users care about each other. Each nation must respect the necessity of the ocean for every other nation. Each individual must value the ocean as a part of everyone’s life. Indifference is our most powerful weakness, the Earth’s greatest enemy, and pollution’s most valuable ally.
During my beach vacation, when I ran from the oozing black sludge dredged up from the corners of the ocean, few others got out of the water. I could hardly believe the indifference of the parents and children splashing in the blackened waves. As I stood on the beach with my family, a child staggered by me, almost colliding with my leg, on his way to his father. He held up a handful of charcoal black foam, and laughed as he smashed it onto his face. “I’m Santa!” the child giggled, and his father smiled, lifted the child, and carried him back to the water.
How dark must the water become, and how sick must the child grow, before the father realizes what has been lost? The ocean is more than the massive, churning abyss that it appears to be. There are fragile ecosystems and processes underneath its frail surface, with powerful roles in our environment, but delicate structures. They feel the impact of an overflowed piping system, and the pressure from a light switch. The unspoken price tag of our actions may be more than this world can bear.
“BP Oil Disaster.” Restore the Mississippi River Delta. Restore the Mississippi River Delta, n.d. Web. 19 June 2017.
“Dredging and Disposal: Contaminated Sediments.” UK Marine Special Areas of Conservation. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 June 2017.
Fulton, John W., and Theodore F. Buckwalter. Fecal-Indicator Bacteria in the Allegheny, Monongahela, and Ohio Rivers, near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, July-September 2001. Rep. U.S. Geological Survey, n.d. Web. 19 June 2017.
“Louisiana Coastal Wetlands: A Resource At Risk.” USGS. Coastal and Marine Geology Program, n.d. Web. 19 June 2017.
Ireland, Perrin. “What You Need to Know About Ocean Acidification.” NRDC. N.p., 28 Mar. 2017. Web. 19 June 2017.
“What Is Dredging?” NOAA’s National Ocean Service. US Department of Commerce, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 06 Sept. 2013. Web. 19 June 2017.
I went into my environmental science class this past year with a plastic water bottle and an expectation for a blow-off class. I left with a dearly loved reusable water bottle and an initiative to save the world. The most impressionable lesson that my teacher taught me was The Tragedy of the Commons, by Garrett Hardin. Hardin wrote about a pasture that a community has to share, and how each individual exploited the soil by adding cattle until the pasture was destroyed for everyone. The world is our pasture, and everyone is tempted to take as much as possible for themselves. My car exhaust is diluted into the atmosphere for everyone to breathe. My electronic appliances contribute to globally increased temperatures. In other words, there is an unspoken price tag to every action. I may not pay the price tag directly, but somebody will. Writing this paper was a chance for me to reflect upon everything I learned in environmental science. I have been taught countless lessons on pollution, but the most important concepts are the values gained. Don’t take anything for granted. Respect everyone and everything around you. Anyone can make a difference. These are lessons that you recited from Sunday School or echoed after reading The Lorax, but they only gain meaning when you see them in action. I wrote to help the lessons click for more readers, because we are accumulating far more debt than we can ever pay off.