The staggering cost of cuts to the environment

Stege Marsh: The stakes in microcosm

Just East of where Rosie and her riveter sisters built warships in great factories, replaced now with office parks, past a stretch of modern condo complexes, lives Stege Marsh- 23 acres of unassuming wetlands on the San Francisco Bay.

Stege Marsh and Meeker Slough, high tide, late afternoon. March 2017. Photo by Jeannette Chiappone

Here, tides wash gently in and out, slowly revealing then submerging mud flats and cord grass. The water changes colors with the mood of the sky. Great egrets stretch out low, their long, slender beaks poised to spear slippery dinner from tide pools. Families of ducks and geese waddle along sandy shoals and slip silently into reedy waters. Unseen harvest mice scamper about, tickling shoots of gum plant basking in the sun. Turtles’ heads pop up and swoosh down again in liquid shadows. At dusk, throaty croaks of lusty frogs fill the salty air.

Nature here seems oblivious to the matters of humans, though the soft din of traffic on nearby I-580 never ceases. Yet just twenty years ago, this beautiful bit of nature was classified as a toxic hot spot because of human activity.

Proposed 2018 Federal Budget: the environment and climate change

Former Vice President Joe Biden once said, “Show me your budget, and I’ll tell you what you value.”

To the shock of many Americans, the 2018 Trump administration budget proposes:

  • slashing funds to enforce clean air and water laws.
  • elimination of all efforts to study, address and curtail climate change.
  • wiping out countless scientific research projects, specifically those targeting clean energy and the environment.

Stege Marsh: The absence of environmental protection in microcosm

Between 1870 and 1950, a factory on the Stege Marsh made blasting caps for gold and silver mines using mercury fulminate. For nearly a century, waste mercury was dumped into the marsh and fields nearby.

From 1897 to 1985, chemical factories popped up along the shore and dumped arsenic, mercury, cadmium, copper, lead and PCBs into vacant lots and sloughs. Toxins seeped deep into the soil, poisoning groundwater. How many workers were sickened or died from exposure to these chemicals is not known.

Stege Marsh showing distressed vegetation prior to restoration. 2002. Photo courtesy of UC Berkeley, Richmond Field Station.

In time, the earth and water became lethal here. In and around pools of orange liquid no vegetation grew, grasses and shrubs elsewhere were sparse, worms no longer slithered in the mud, no snails inched along ground. Clapper rails stopped nesting and began to disappear from the landscape. Field mice could not be found. The marsh was nearly dead.

Cancer rates among local residents in the 1980s were suspiciously higher than elsewhere in the region. Later, signs appeared on gates and fences at office parks and residential zones: Danger. Carcinogens.

Budget cuts to water, air safety and the environment

The Environmental Protection Agency, tasked with enforcing environmental laws, is facing a 31 percent budget cut. $129 million will be slashed from the EPA’s compliance enforcement budget alone.

David Lewis, Executive Director of Save the Bay says, “This goes to the heart of what the Environmental Protection Agency is suppose to do: to protect us all.  It’s a huge step backwards.”

The cuts would greatly relax water and air quality enforcement, Lewis says. “Over time that means people are going to die. These are public health impacts. The people who suffer the most from pollution are the poorest, disadvantaged people. So these cutback are going to hurt the people who are already hurting the most.”

Fifty EPA programs are slated for crippling cuts or elimination, including restoration projects for The Great Lakes, Chesapeake Bay, Puget Sound and San Francisco Bay.

Stege Marsh: A restoration in microcosm

In 1998, Stege Marsh was named a toxic hot spot by the San Francisco Regional Water Quality Board. In 2001, the Board ordered those responsible for the dumping of toxic waste to clean and restore the marsh.

The estimated cost for removing toxins and restoration was $10 million for 23 acres of marsh.

Stege Marsh one year after excavation and back-fill with clean bay mud. 2002. Photo courtesy of UB Berkeley, Richmond Field Station.

Financing for the project came primarily from the parties responsible for the contamination. However, under the Clean Water Act, the federal government contributed essential funding for the project. Numerous other state funds and loans were also brought in for the monumental task.

Today, the clean up and restoration of Stege Marsh is largely completed but questions remain as to the safety of the area. Arsenic, copper, mercury and PCBs still contaminate the soil but the public is assured the levels are no longer a danger to humans or wildlife. Nevertheless, fish from this part of the Bay show levels of PCBs 10 times greater than fish in other areas the Bay.

Budget cuts to climate change

“Regarding the question as to climate change,” the Trump administration’s Director of the Office of Budget and Management, Mick Mulvney, says, “We’re not spending money on that anymore. We consider that a waste of your money.”

Under the proposed budget, funding for all international climate change programs, research and partnerships, including The Global Climate Change Initiative, are eliminated.

The EPA’s Clean Power Plan, which would cap carbon dioxide emission from power plants, is eliminated, allowing the nation’s largest producers of greenhouse gas emissions to run unchecked.

NASA’s Climate Continuity satellite mission to track and analyze atmospheric greenhouse gases is eliminated.

NOAA’s climate change programs, which collect and analyze data on ocean and atmospheric temperatures and carbon levels, which in turn are used as tools for other climate change research, are eliminated.

Gary Bobker, The Bay Institute’s Rivers and Delta Programs Director says, “NOAA is important to the broader science of climate change and its impact on local ecosystems. NOAA analyzes data from satellites, observation stations and climate models to forecast and help us prepare for climate changes. The proposed budget is tragic and ludicrous.”

Jeremy Madsen, CEO of Greenbelt Alliance say. “We’re really at a tipping point when it comes to the planetary environmental crisis. If we don’t push forward, or even step back, which is what I think we’re seeing right now, it might be too late in four to eight years.”

Impact on environmental science research

The proposed budget cuts to scientific research overlaps with water and air quality studies and climate research already mentioned. But many other environmental science endeavors face elimination.

The Department of Energy’s funding of new energy research is eliminated. The White House budget calls such investigations “disruptive energy research.”

Thirty-three university research programs partnered with and funded by NOAA grants are to be eliminated.

NASA’s Earth Science program, which collects vast amounts of data from its specialized satellites, is to be eliminated. This effectively ends satellite data collection of global precipitation levels, global soil moister levels which monitor droughts, floods and crop productivity.

“Because of all the science, all the research and monitoring that has been going on,” Mark Silberstein, Executive Director of Elkhorn Slough Foundation says, “we’re able to demonstrate statistically significant” changes in the environment that lead to successful land and water management.

“Cuts to satellite activities is incredibly short-sighted,” Silberstein says.

Why healthy ecosystems matter

For the last several decades, Herculean efforts have been made to reclaim and restore thousands of ecosystems across the United States like Stege Marsh. Many have just barely survived a century of industrial waste dumps and the steady encroachment of commercial and residential development. Local, state, and federal programs and hundreds of university and private research teams have made huge strides in bringing these important ecosystems back to life. These efforts have been made for an array of reasons both urgent and sublime.

In the case of wetlands, they help keep water clean by acting as filtration systems, preventing harmful chemicals from making their way out to sea.

Wetlands prevent soil erosion thus reducing damage from flooding due to storms and sea level rise.

Wetlands are essential habitat for fish, fowl, land critters and flora, especially those endangered species on the brink of extinction.

In the battle against climate change, wetlands have unique physical properties which make them powerful locations for carbon sequestration and storage.

San Francisco Bay from Stege Marsh. March 2017. Photo by Jeannette Chiappone

And the human spirit, so battered by the burdens of modern life, can find refuge and rejuvenation in our original home- a healthy natural environment. Mark Silberstein calls spending time in the beautiful of nature “slow motion healthcare.”

Caitlin Sweeney of The San Francisco Estuary Partnership says, “The health of our environment directly impacts the health and vitality of our communities.” When we sustain our natural environment, we strengthen and protect the fabric of our communities, the fabric of our lives, the continuity of life from generation to generation.

Valuing and protecting clean air and water, and combating climate change now is far less expensive in the short-term than the price to be paid by future generations and our planet once the damage is done.

Editor’s note: a previous version of this piece incorrectly attributed the comments about time in nature as “slow motion healthcare.” This was said by Mark Silberstein.


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One Response to The staggering cost of cuts to the environment

  1. Jerry M Aragon says:

    Thank you so much for so elegantly saying what we all feel and some of us know. An article that highlights the beauty and reality of our ecosystem. The arcane cruel cuts to the EPA, Clean Water Act, etc., are just cruel with no compassion. Just EVIL. I have to totally agree with MR. Silberman. Living in Albuquerque, Home of the Worlds Largest Cottonwood Forrest in America, I see daily the effect of Nature on folk. They flock to walk under the trees that have been here before my family settled here in concert with the Nature hundreds of years ago. On a warm June day, it looks like snow has fallen and life is surreal and beautiful. Nature is indeed therapy, mostly it is Life.

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