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Coronavirus is helping the Chesapeake Bay by curbing pollution, but what happens after the pandemic | COMMENTARY

A freighter moves along the Chesapeake Bay during a sunset.
A freighter moves along the Chesapeake Bay during a sunset. (Katherine Frey/Washington Post)

In the midst of the devastating human toll and economic collapse caused by the coronavirus, a few environmental improvements seem — on the surface — like silver linings on all the dark clouds.

Air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions declined as fewer people drove to work and airplanes idled. The burning of coal and oil plummeted. Noise pollution diminished because there was less traffic and more people were out walking, suddenly having more time to witness the blooming of flowers. Wild animals seemed to exhibit a cocky new attitude, roaming the streets with all the people hiding in their burrows.

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But we should remember that all these changes are temporary. All the traffic is likely to come roaring back as soon as the virus has passed. The pollution may even return with a vengeance, as the Trump administration has been busy at work during the shutdown, rolling back fuel efficiency standards for vehicles and weakening Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) enforcement policies.

So this is not a time to gaze up at the blue skies and celebrate an environmental “improvement.” As we sit in our homes on lockdown and some of us begin to return to work, this is an opportunity to reflect on the big picture of what we’ve done to our world. We should think about how — when we remove our masks and try to resume normal life — we can make our normal healthier.

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That reflection should include the food we eat every day and the impact it has on the Chesapeake Bay. For example, think the about that chicken you ate last night.

The nonprofit Environmental Integrity Project recently released a new report documenting that the poultry industry in the Chesapeake region produces not only more than a billion chickens and turkeys every year, but also 5.7 billion pounds of manure and 200 million pounds of ammonia air pollution.

The ammonia from all these birds rises into the atmosphere, and then falls back down onto the land and into the bay, adding about 12 million pounds of nitrogen — the Chesapeake Bay’s biggest killer — to the estuary every year. All told, the waste from the poultry industry, including the ammonia in the air and the runoff from manure spread on farm fields, results in a total of about 24 million pounds of nitrogen entering the bay on an annual basis, where it feeds fish-killing “dead zones.”

That’s about a million pounds more nitrogen than EPA estimated when it worked with the states to create the current Chesapeake Bay cleanup plan. To put those numbers in context, 24 million pounds of nitrogen is more than twice than the amount that comes every year from all the sewage spills, municipal sewage treatment plants and industrial wastewater plants in Maryland (10 million pounds of nitrogen) or Pennsylvania (9 million pounds), according to the EPA-led Chesapeake Bay Program.

So it’s a big problem. But this ammonia from factory farms is not even monitored on a regular basis, let alone controlled in any way. Because of lobbying from politically-powerful poultry industry (including Maryland-based Perdue Farms), state lawmakers killed legislation in 2017, 2018 and 2019 that would have required the study of air pollution from poultry houses and its impact on the health of nearby residents. A bill that would have imposed a pause in state approvals for the construction of large new poultry houses died in March.

That was before the coronavirus crisis struck, sending lawmakers home, like the rest of us. But now, as we look to the future, we know that the issue will eventually come back — along with all the traffic and air pollution, as soon as the virus subsides.

Nobody is suggesting that a deadly pandemic that traps all of us indoors and throws so many people out of work is the answer to the pollution we create. But now that we’ve been traumatized by this public health crisis — and had the opportunity to reflect on how much we want to protect our health — we owe it to ourselves to do better next time. Assuming we want to keep eating chicken, we should urge our state lawmakers to support meaningful pollution control regulations for the Chesapeake region’s poultry industry.

Tom Pelton (tpelton@environmentalintegrity.org) is director of communications for the Environmental Integrity Project and author of the book, “The Chesapeake in Focus: Transforming the Natural World” (Johns Hopkins University Press).

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