Green Technologies Lead to Clear Waters

By: Annie Reisewitz and Sarah Martin

Coho salmon once flourished throughout the North Pacific, from Monterey Bay in central California up to Alaska’s Point Hope and across to Russia and Japan. Today many of those populations are extinct. With less than 10 percent of their historic population left, this iconic species holds an intrinsic economic, recreational, and cultural value. And yet, the remaining coho salmon populations continue to be threatened with extinction today.

Photo courtesy Reuven Walder, SPAWN/Marine Photobank.
Photo courtesy Reuven Walder, SPAWN/Marine Photobank.

The recent front-page story in the Seattle Times aptly illustrated the deadly effects of runoff from urban roadway on coho salmon. Salmon are entering polluted rivers and dying in as little as 2 ½ hours, before they ever have a chance to spawn.

These salmon are the ‘canaries in the coal mine’ and certainly not the only fish irreversibly damaged by pollutant-filled runoff.  We are choking our marine life to death with a cocktail of toxic metals, pesticides and used motor oil, the main ingredients in storm-water runoff. Storm-water runoff is the number one cause of water pollution in urban areas.

A recent lawsuit brought by the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Environmental Defense Center forced the Environmental Protection Agency to finally act on a decade-old court order. They are required to update national regulations to protect our waterways from urban runoff by November 2016.

These new U.S. EPA regulations must take a holistic approach to ensure we fully protect our salmon and other living ecosystems and not simply band-aid the problem. First, by preventing the toxins from entering our urban storm system through green technology approaches and, second, by encouraging green infrastructures to filter out any toxins before they make it to our waterways.

For example, over 40 percent of the pollution in America’s waterways is from used motor oil. At 385 million gallons per year, it’s the single largest source of oil pollution in U.S. harbor and waterways. By far the greatest cause of oil in our waterways comes from urban street runoff, much of which is from improper disposal of engine oil.

The U.S. EPA reports that over 200 million gallons of motor oil are tossed in the trash, spilled on the ground or poured down drains and sewers annually. These ‘silent oil spills’ eventually end up in our waterways, as rainwater or as melting snow carried to the nearest water body.

In 2014, U.S. sales in hybrid and plug-in vehicles were just over 570,000. Compare this with the nearly eight million new cars sold that same year, not including all the trucks and buses on our roadways. We are a long way from completely removing motor oil from our lives.

The U.S. EPA uses the term ‘environmentally acceptable lubricant’ to describe motor oils that meet standards for biodegradability, toxicity and bioaccumulation. These oils minimize the likelihood of adverse consequences in the aquatic environment, compared to petroleum-based lubricants, which are highly toxicity to marine life.

According to the U.S. EPA “using alternative products instead of toxic substances drastically reduces the presence of toxics in storm water and receiving waters.” Petroleum-based motor oil is a known toxic substance and a known hazardous waste product.

Mineral oils, like petroleum, have a high potential for bioaccumulation and a measureable toxicity toward marine organisms. In contrast, bio-based oils derived from renewable sources such as algae or plants degrade faster, do not bioaccumulate, and have a near zero toxicity to marine organisms.

Knowing this, shouldn’t we act to make the oil in our cars greener too? One green technology approach is replacing the petrochemical toxins found in motor oil with environmentally friendly alternatives.

The U.S. EPA recently mandated the use of ‘environmentally acceptable lubricants’ for any vessel in the waters of the United States under the vessel general permit, an encouraging effort to regulate motor oil discharge from vessels under the Clean Water Act. A similar EPA standard should be in place for automotive motor oils that is used for ocean-going vessels.

With fewer pollutants entering our waterways, we can ensure the green infrastructure solutions, such as organic gardening, permeable pavements, and green roofs, can do the job of filtering out any remaining pesticides, toxic metals or nutrients into waterways.

More used motor oil is illegally dumped every year then from the BP oil spill. We need to listen to the ‘canaries in the water’ and work together to save the salmon and effectively tackle the urban runoff problem through increased public awareness, green infrastructures and clean technologies.


About the authors:

 Annie Reisewitz is a communications and marketing consultant for environmental and green technology initiatives. She manages the Silent Oil Spills public awareness campaign.

Sarah Martin has worked in environmental communications for the past several years. She works on the Silent Oil Spills campaign.

Changing Planet