essays and articles by david g allen

Will West Virginia Lose The Potomac River? 


Part One 

The Potomac River is under attack! What else would you call it when people use the Potomac, one of America’s great rivers, as a sewer to dump Chinese snakehead fish and Florida alligators? Although the recent discovery of these exotic castaways demonstrates the casual disregard that people have for the Potomac, there is a more sinister assault taking shape. Environmental contaminants from unknown sources are causing male bass to produce eggs—a condition known as intersex.

The discovery of intersex fish began with an investigation of a Potomac River fish kill in 2002. The dead fish had skin lesions and specimens were examined by different laboratories to determine the cause of the lesions as well as cause of death. In 2003, biologists at the U. S. Geological Survey’s Leetown Science Center in Jefferson County discovered the intersex anomaly. As to what causes intersexing has been a focus of their research since then.

Biologists suspect that endocrine-disrupting compounds (EDCs) are the culprit. That suspicion, however, does little to narrow the search for the actual compound or compounds that are responsible. For example, certain pesticides and herbicides are EDCs. And you cannot rule out pharmaceutical hormones. When excreted, the hormones in birth control pills find their way untouched through a wastewater treatment plant and end up in the river. 

The same is true for other hormones; including those mixed in livestock feed. And it’s just not the man-made stuff that causes problems. Soy beans, red clover, and a whole host of other plants naturally produce phytoestrogens.

According to the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, several sampling points on the South Branch of the Potomac exhibit above-acceptable levels of antibiotics. And there’s Roxarsone, an organo-arsenic compound fed to poultry. The arsenic (according to my reading) does not contaminate the chicken but passes through in the manure. In time, the arsenic in the manure drops out and is detectable as arsenate in water samples, especially those samples taken during a runoff event.

Get the picture? The sources for EDC contamination are many—from poultry barns to suburban lawns to households. The local grocery, pharmacy, and hardware store provide us with chemicals that we use routinely and without second thought in our daily lives.

To better understand the complexity of intersex fish and what it means for humans, my one big question has been, “If wastewater treatment plants do not remove the suspect EDCs, then does the downstream water treatment plant remove them before they can enter a municipal drinking water system?” The answer should be obvious to the non-scientist.

With so many variables in play, and no simple, sure-fire way to remove EDCs from the river, perhaps we should consider an alternative method to clean up the Potomac. 

The basic principle of water treatment has not changed much since the Chinese developed it some 5,000 years ago. The operative word in water treatment is “dilution.” Whereas Chinese farmers used a series of settling ponds to dilute toxins, we supplant the ancient process with concrete settling basins, sand or activated carbon filters, and a shot of ozone or chlorine to kill bacteria. But the end goal is the same—reduce toxins from parts per million to parts per billion, and so forth.

Our mountains are tall enough to shortchange the Potomac watershed on rainfall but they aren’t tall enough to provide a snow melt into the dry months of summer. If the Potomac had a stronger summertime flow, we wouldn’t be researching intersex fish or discussing the impact of EDCs. 

I, for one, would hate to see the Potomac’s tributaries dammed at every pinch point just to dilute EDCs. But that may be the best solution available if intersex bass turn out to be the canaries in the coal mine. Regardless, the recipe for success calls for more water or less chemistry—dilution.

At present, we cannot draw definitive conclusions from the water and fish studies that have been done. Some bass exhibit intersex, others do not, and other fish species seem perfectly fine. We have no sure cause for the intersex phenomenon. And we do not have a chemical profile of the Potomac.

What we have at this point is a hunch. Playing a hunch often leads to conjecture. Conjecture invariably leads to hyperbole. And hyperbole occupies a special place in America—Washington, DC.

In Part Two, I will discuss the federal solution.

Part Two

As many as a dozen federal regulatory agencies have some responsibility for the health of the Chesapeake Bay. Six states and the District of Columbia are responsible for the health of the Bay’s 64,000 sq. mi. watershed. I assume that none of the responsible bureaucracies are doing their job very well or one-third of the Bay would not have been declared “dead” in July of this year.

The usual suspects—light rainfall and agricultural runoff—were indicted in press releases. The EPA trumpeted that “new limits” agreed to by the states would further reduce nitrogen and phosphorous discharges in an effort to reduce dead zones. Then it was back to business as usual.

When you rub a dog’s nose in his own mess, he gets the message. When it comes to government, however, the lesson fails. In fact, the opposite happens. Regulators always respond with puppy dog faces that they have neither the funds nor the manpower to fulfill their mandate. Whimpering gets them off the leash for another budget year. 

Eventually, this do-nothing attitude will change because the people who draw their drinking water from the Potomac will begin to get jittery about intersex fish. As it is now, a dead crow in the Maryland suburbs creates hysteria about West Nile virus. Imagine the panic if a human health connection is made to endocrine-disrupting compounds in drinking water.

In a worst-case scenario, the Potomac watershed in eastern West Virginia is at risk of either being condemned in the public interest or declared a federal territory. Or perhaps, the federal courts would impose sort form of environmental easement to accomplish the same. My belief that this could happen sounds far-fetched—hyperbole if you will. But in light of the recent Supreme Court decision on eminent domain, the rules of logic have changed.

The March 2002 issue of “California Law Review” contains the 100-page article “Is West Virginia Unconstitutional?” The last two sentences in the article read: “West Virginians may rest secure in the knowledge that their State is not unconstitutional. Probably.” 

If your lawyer wrote you a 100-page memo regarding your own legitimacy, how would you feel if he ended it by saying, “Probably.”?

The authors also asked themselves, “Why would anyone care?…Given that…West Virginia is not…going to be absorbed back into old Virginia…” In other words, without a plaintiff with standing, nobody is going to force the issue of West Virginia’s statehood in court. I would like to see this article updated in light of Kelo vs. City of New London. For it appears to this non-lawyer that either the federal government or the municipal water districts of metropolitan Washington, DC have a unique opportunity to do exactly what New York City did to the Catskills—condemn a faraway watershed to provide drinking water.

Okay, that’s enough shock and awe.

West Virginia does have a window of opportunity to get out in front on the issue of intersex fish. But our attitude and response must be positive and inquisitive rather than the predictable role of regulators satisfied with assessing penalties and tinkering with discharge limits.

West Virginia is developing a promising biometrics industry through research and development. Thus, why can’t we use the R&D model to move to the forefront on stream and river research? The Potomac, more than any other river, ought to be a powerful magnet for federal research grants for our universities.

Thomas Jefferson was so inspired when he visited Harper’s Ferry that he wrote, “The passage of the Patowmac through the Blue Ridge is perhaps one of the most stupendous scenes in Nature.” This is the same inspiration that we must embrace if we intend to clean up the river. But instead, we find ourselves living in an age when vandals have painted the very rock upon which Jefferson dipped his quill pen.

The Potomac River is under attack.


David G. Allen, Clarksburg, WV

Dr. Robert E. Putz, Founder of the Freshwater Institute at Shepherdstown, WV contributed to this article.

"Will West Virginia Lose the Potomac River?" appeared in two parts in the August 26 and September 2, 2005 issues of the West Virginia "State Journal."




Copyright 1990-2005  David G. Allen