Friday, April 08, 2005

Polluting suburbanites

The Post had an article today on a subdivision development project in Virginia that has been causing runoff problems for nearby homeowners. According to the story, construction in the new subdivision has led to runoff which has muddied a pond owned by nine local residents. These residents are pissed because their pond is no longer blue.

First of all, I must admit that I feel no particular sympathy for the original residents. Their pond is man-made and, ironically enough, the result of early suburban development in Prince William County. The fact that it's being "ruined" by continuing development is merely symptomatic of the environmental problems caused by any suburban development, new or old.

What caught my eye about this story was the fact that the developer has been charged with 50 environmental violations relating to failures to control runoff. According to the story:
A developer is required to erect silt fences, ponds, traps or berms or use other methods to control erosion, depending on the situation, said Tom Bruun, assistant director of public works for Prince William.

Presumably, the developer in question did little or nothing along these lines. In mind, though, the issues of larger importance hinted at by the story is the fact that it appears that developers in Virginia are only required to put in structural erosion controls in certain circumstances. What that means is that in many instances, a developer can convert open space into suburban housing and need only concern him/herself with runoff from the construction site. The fact that the new developments creates impervious cover and results in long-term runoff problems is not something developers have to address.

This is not an issue specific to Virginia either. EPA recently promulgated a NPDES general permit to control stormwater runoff from constuction sites. The original version of the rule required structural runoff controls that would ensure that new construction would not result in a net change in sediment or other pollutants downstream from teh development. At the behest of the National Association of Homebuilders and the Building Industries of America, the EPA removed the structural control requirements and, instead, put in a lesser standard of "best management practices". Typically, this translates into short-term runoff controls that are, not coincidentally, cheaper and easier for the developer.

In any case, the local consequences of this laxity in runoff controls might be clear (i.e. muddy pond), but the larger consequences, again, are only hinted at. The story has this throw-away quote:
"During rainstorms, debris and dirt can be seen trickling down a hill and into the pond, which then overflows and floods streets in the area just a short distance from Quantico Creek, a tributary of the Potomac River."

Unfortunately, in my opinion, the story doesn't point out that the Potomac flows into the Chesapeake Bay. This is a vital fact because the latest Chesapeake Bay Foundation report card show that nitrogen and phosphorous are the two greatest threats to the Bay, and nitrogen and phosphorous are primary components of agricultural and lawn runoff. Thus, the problem with this story is that the average reader might conclude from this story that the nasty developer is needlessly making the pretty swimming/fishing pond unclean and very likely miss the larger point that development generally is needlessly making our water resources unclean.

UPDATE: I realize that I never really concluded why this is important, or why I'm complaining about the paper. Basically, it comes back to my post a while back about ecosystem services, I think. People often don't recognize or think about the environmental costs or consequences of their actions and their choices. The media isn't required to do this, but instances like this article are great ways to start informing people about such issues. Thus, I see the article as a lost opportunity to possibly awaken some people to the cost of unregulated development on larger regional ecosystems.