The Chesapeake Bay’s Toxic Present Could Be Our Country’s Toxic Future


    Every nation has and needs a natural symbol or symbols to represent its vibrancy, its past, its present, and its future, and its ties to the land upon which it has built its civilization. On the Atlantic Coast of the United States, the Chesapeake Bay is undoubtedly one of those symbols. Once a point of social and communal life for a number of Native American tribes, the Chesapeake Bay became a point of arrival and commerce for the newly arriving and established colonists. In other words, the Chesapeake Bay is a natural land mark that tells a story of our country’s past. But it also tells a story of our country’s future.

    And if the health of the Chesapeake Bay is any indication of where the United States is headed, our future won’t be a very clean one and, consequently, one worth striving for. A new technical report by the Environmental Protection Agency goes beyond the TMDL discussions and research and explores the toxic contaminants that are present in the Bay, and the results aren’t savory.  

    Some of the contaminants that are “widespread in the Chesapeake Bay” include the following: polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs); polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs); mercury; and pesticides. Other toxics that were found in some areas and not others include the following: dioxins; petroleum hydrocarbons; chlorinated insecticides; aluminum; and lead.

    Not all areas of the Bay are equal, therefore, in their level of contaminant pollution. But the overall conclusion is not much less disconcerting.

    I hope it is clear to many what these chemicals mean to wildlife and human health. But the inundation of the Chesapeake Bay with sediment, lead, mercury, PCBs and so forth also exposes one of the U.S.’s most powerful symbols of the past and present and cultural health to a fatal conclusion: the U.S. is fundamentally harming itself at the same time that it is prospering and the ambitions that we share as a country and as a people may be coming at an unjustifiable cost.

    The U.S. once prided itself on the idea of a landscape so vast and a Manifest Destiny so powerful that the laws of nature were almost seen as bending to America’s will. But the sordid condition of the Chesapeake Bay is a constant and sober reminder that future generations of Americans will reap what previous generations have sown. That is not right. That is not just. That is not in line with the American dream.

    We have the opportunity to turn the health of the Chesapeake Bay around. If we ‘lose’ the Chesapeake Bay, we not only lose an important source of revenue, an important job creator, but an important part of who we are as Americans. That is something that money cannot buy.


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