U.S. & Canada: Too Many People for West Coast Health

from Environment News Service

OLYMPIA, Washington, May 16, 2002 (ENS) - The Puget Sound and Georgia Basin area on both sides of the U.S./Canadian border has too many people for its environmental good, according to the first environmental trends report for the region.

In an environmental trends report issued today, the two governments jointly said the primary environmental challenge facing the region is the number of people in the area and what they do to natural resources.

The Transboundary Georgia Basin-Puget Sound Environmental Indicators Working Group released the first indicators report for the region, the "Georgia-Basin-Puget Sound Ecosystem Indicators Report." The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Washington State Department of Ecology Action Team, Environment Canada, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, and the British Columbia ministries of Water, Land and Air Protection and Sustainable Resource Management collaborated on the report.

“We need to change how we use land, energy, water and other natural resources to sustain our environment and economy,” said Scott Redman, acting chair of the Puget Sound Water Quality Action Team. “With local communities we need to do a better job of planning on how we intend to use our land and natural resources more efficiently, while continuing to monitor our environment.”

Between 1991 and 2000, the region’s population grew by about 20 percent, for a total of seven million people. Most of the growth has been in urban areas. By 2020, the population is projected to increase by another 32 percent to more than nine million people. Most of the growth is predicted to occur in more rural areas.

"The natural ecosystem of the Georgia Basin and Puget Sound does not stop at international boundaries," said L. John Iani, a regional administrator for the EPA. “We all share the environmental, social and economic challenges of the region."

In the past decade, the quality of air has improved, but significant health risks remain, the report suggests. Microscopic particles of dust and soot can harm people's breathing, damage lung tissue, worsen chronic health problems related to breathing and respiratory problems and contribute to premature death.

Even though the region’s population grew by one million people in the last decade, both the amount of solid waste created by each person and the amount of waste that was recycled remained nearly the same.

In 1999, residents in the Georgia Basin generated 3.4 million tons of solid waste and Puget Sound residents generated 5.4 million tons. That’s enough waste to cover four lanes of Highway I-90, which is 60 feet wide, to a depth of 18 feet for about 240 miles.

In the Georgia Basin, residents recycle 43 percent of those wastes, and in the Puget Sound, people recycle 33 percent of those wastes.

Many plants and animals are at a high risk of becoming extinct, the working group found. In the Georgia Basin, almost 35 percent of the freshwater fish are at risk of extinction compared to 18 percent of the freshwater fish in Puget Sound.

Twelve percent of the reptiles in Georgia Basin may become extinct compared to 25 percent at risk of extinction in the Puget Sound. The development of houses and businesses along streams and shorelines has taken away the natural habitat for many of these animals and patterns of extinction follows the lands. The most notable patterns of extinction are in the lowlands that have less protection from development.

Some areas are being protected from development and kept as preserved or open space areas under international guidelines, but most of those places are in upland areas, such as the slopes of the Cascades and Mt. Rainier.

As of 2000, 1.75 million acres of land were protected in Georgia Basin and 2.45 million acres of land in the Puget Sound. But in the area where most people live, less than 3,000 feet above sea level, only one percent of the land is protected.

Some harbor seals are contaminated with polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), which are highly persistent organic chemicals used primarily in electrical equipment such as transformers.

The U.S. and Canadian governments banned the use of PCBs in the mid-1970s, but it persists in the environment. PCB levels have remained constant for more than 14 years despite aggressive cleanup efforts.

PCBs can harm aquatic organisms and accumulate in fish tissue. Puget Sound harbor seals have up to eight times the contamination of PCBs as their relatives to the north, in the Strait of Georgia, the working group reports.

Governments in Canada and the U.S. plan to continue working together to address problems pointed out in the Ecosystem Indicators Report and examine other environmental aspects common to the region.

“Regulatory authority over fish, wildlife, air, water, soil, and public lands all tends to be assigned to separate agencies – which makes it too easy to lose sight of the big picture,” said Linda Hoffman, deputy director of the Washington State Department of Ecology. “By coming together and sharing information, we now have a better picture of what’s going on in a very unique area of our region, and we can work together to make a difference.”

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