This paper was written as part of the 2004 Alaska Ocean Sciences Bowl high school competition. The conclusions in this report are solely those of the student authors.
The Contamination of the Kenai Peninsula Coastal Community: The Impact of Humanity on a Clean Ecosystem
There is no doubt that the entire Kenai Peninsula is dependent on its rich marine and freshwater ecosystems. The concerns and interests of our community were evaluated in a survey the Skyview High School Ocean Science Bowl team carried out in 2002. The results showed that our community values preserving the wildlife and natural systems in our area. Unfortunately, there are many types of contamination sources, both point and non-point, that undermine these values and damage the ecosystem. For this project, we are focusing on non-point sources of contamination, since point sources are generally better regulated. While researching non-point sources, our team discovered there were numerous types of non-point contaminants, most of them with one thing in common, human origin. Reflecting on this, humans can essentially be viewed as a major contaminant of our community. One measure of this is the average number of acres each person requires to maintain a lifestyle. In our community we found 17 acres were needed per person as opposed to the United States average of 24 acres per person.
The obvious solution for eliminating contamination is to eliminate the contaminant; however it is impractical and undesirable to eliminate humans from the Kenai Peninsula. We need to create and/or maintain a sustainable economy. Our team decided that the best ways to achieve a sustainable economy and decrease contamination would be to limit population growth through regional planning and to regulate the amount of contamination produced per person. In this way, by limiting the main source of contamination and also instilling in the members of the community the knowledge of what they themselves have to do to help, we would keep the pristine environment that the community values.
Alaska's ecosystem is threatened by a multitude of contaminants. It is threatened by physical, biological and chemical pollutants. In that context, the National Ocean Science Bowl leadership (NOSB) asked what contaminant we felt was most important in our community.
The teams were also asked to develop a local risk assessment study to determine what measures should be taken in either reducing the contaminant source or reducing the health risk to sensitive individuals.
Our paper starts with an overview of our community on the Kenai Peninsula, especially the Soldotna area, which will among other things deal with the increasing population on the Peninsula. It then examines the types of contamination that are taking place and decide that there are a wide variety of sources and types. Both non-point and point source pollutants are examined. Rather than focus on any one pollution problem, our approach is to address the root cause of almost all pollution, the effects of humans. We hope that by looking at the topic from this different perspective we can have a good debate and discussion in our community.
The Kenai Peninsula Borough is located in southcentral Alaska, below Anchorage, and bordered directly by the Gulf of Alaska on the southern and eastern sides. Upper Cook Inlet borders the Peninsula on the west (Figure 1). There are approximately 16,013 square miles of land on the Kenai Peninsula. Of that, less than 50% is available for private use.
The population of the Kenai Peninsula was 51,000 in 2002 and has been more than doubling every 20 years (U.S. Census Bureau 2000; Figure 2). The population of the Kenai Peninsula has an average of 3.1 people per square mile but this is misleading since large sections of the Peninsula are in wildlife refuge and made up of ice fields. The population tends to be concentrated in small communities like Soldotna, Kenai, Cooper Landing, Seward, and Homer (Figure 1).
The people of the Kenai Peninsula Borough care greatly for their natural environment. According to a survey done last year, every age group of people living in the Kenai Peninsula Borough feels that protecting our wildlife is a greater priority than economic development. Most people on the Peninsula would rather see their community remain the same size as it is, and by no means want it to become as populated as Anchorage. They prefer industries such as small businesses and tourism, yet they do not oppose oil and gas development. Though the people of the Kenai Peninsula do not believe there are enough job opportunities, they still would rather preserve the wilderness than develop land to create more jobs (Skyview High School NOSB paper 2002).
WHAT IS A CONTAMINANT?
What is a contaminant? The first definition is a substance that is found where it shouldn't be. The new Webster Dictionary defines 'to contaminate' as "to make impure or unclean by contact or mixture." Another definition is "a substance where it shouldn't be in high enough levels to have a negative effect on our health or on the health of animals or plants."
The contaminant sources on the Kenai Peninsula ecosystem can be divided into two groups. These consist of point and non-point source. Point sources of pollution occur when harmful substances are emitted directly into a part of the environment and the initial location is pinpointed. Table 1 lists several point sources found in our community. A non-point source delivers pollutants through environmental changes, often over a widespread area and its initial location is difficult to pinpoint. This means that it is difficult to regulate or even keep track of the contamination (Kenai Watershed Forum, 2003). Specific examples of non-point source pollution in our community are listed in Table 1.
Though the people of the Kenai Peninsula have a great respect and love for their natural environment, history has shown that people do not always apply their values to their habit of living. The local residents are no different and many tourists are notorious for not being environmentally friendly unless provisions have been put in place. Some of the more obvious sources of pollution include waste disposal, gasoline entering the Kenai River via outboard motor use, chemicals and salts from roadways washing into rivers, and harmful toxins being released into the air. For example, of the 18,405 households on the Kenai Peninsula, 1,361 heat with wood. Automobile use is a further example of a non-point source of pollution. Six thousand households use one vehicle while approximately 7400 households have two vehicles. The average drive to work for a resident is 25 minutes (US Census Bureau, 2002).
THE HUMAN AS A CONTAMINANT
When we examine all the sources of contamination in our community, we realize that no one source is solely responsible or necessarily significant in our community. However, all the sources combined were a long term threat. What do they have in common? The common point among all them was that they were related directly to human population growth. Could a human be considered a contaminant? From a definition viewpoint they could. However, we wanted to look at this issue from some other perspectives.
First, we examined the literature and found the example of a clean-room. It is designed to be completely without contamination; absolutely sterile. The purpose of such a room is to perform experiments that cannot be infected or corrupted. Medical research and computer technology construction sometimes requires this level of cleanliness. The main source of contamination in clean rooms is humans. For example, humans shed thousands of dead skin cells a minute from just standing. They secrete body oils and carry diseases. All of these factors can impact research results. Significant amounts of money are spent every year to make sure human contamination of clean rooms does not take place or is minimized (Eudy 2003).
The team looked far into space for the next example. We thought that looking at an environment where humans have never been was a good opportunity to demonstrate the development of our idea. How will humans affect this place the first time they enter the environment?
Mars, the red planet, is free of human contamination. But NASA and other space agencies are preparing the first manned space mission to our interplanetary neighbor. Obviously, the best way to discover the planet and search for life is to send humans; but together with the men and women, millions of bacterium will enter Mars surface. In addition, humans will bring contamination via the transport vehicles, burning of fuels, disposal of waste, and from a multiple of other avenues (Lupisella 2003).
We have concluded through our research that humans, as the individual or as a group, create an atmosphere of contamination around them. The visual image of "pigpen" from the Peanuts comic strip is quite useful. We use natural resources and put substances back into the environment that are hazardous. On the Kenai Peninsula the rapid rate of growth of the human population (Figure 2) is the greatest threat to our ecosystem. Without control of this population growth and the activities associated with humans we will see our culture and environment degrade.
Once we decided that humans could be a contaminant we examined ways to quantify the human impact and how to address it. One way was to estimate the amount of land a single person in our community needs to maintain their life style; their "foot print."
THE HUMAN FOOTPRINT
The team obtained a land use survey (Redefining Progress 2003) and thought that it applied well to our theme. The question in the survey asked for basic information about each family, such as how much meat a family eats a week or how far they travel in an automobile every week (Appendix A has the survey form [available online at http://www.myfootprint.org]). Then, using an equation that the creators of the survey derived, a person could calculate how many acres of land it takes for Americans to uphold their standard of living.
We distributed surveys to people we know at the school, including teachers, faculty, and students. Approximately thirty surveys were returned to us. Using these we were able to come up with what we hope is a rough estimate of how much land the people of our community use. The average acreage for our community is 17 acres/person. The average for the United States is 24 acres/person. Those acres are used to grow produce, raise livestock, and contain the fuels we need to power vehicles, support substances that our clothing is made of, and supply us with water.
With over six billion people on the planet, to enable everyone to have the same standard of living as Americans, the population would need to have 102 billion acres of usable land. Earth only has about 27 billion acres of land, not all of it usable, meaning we would need four to five earths just to support our species at this level of consumption and contamination.
CAN WE SUSTAIN OUR ENVIRONMENT AT THIS LEVEL
Consumption of resources by a growing population of humans is a significant and growing threat to our global ecosystem. Tilford (2000) cites examples of human consumption and the increasing risk to the environment. Some examples include; 1) fifty one percent of freshwater animal species of the world are declining 2) one of every eight plant species is threatened with extinction or is nearly extinct 3) the overall rate of extinction is estimated to be 1,000 to 10,000 times higher than it would be naturally 4) vast destruction of the world's forests is contributing to the spread of the world's deserts and 5) fisheries are collapsing–about a quarter of the world's fishery stocks are in danger of depletion.
Locally, in the Soldotna/Kenai area, signs of population stress are already taking place. In the Kenai River it is estimated that approximately 10,000 gallons of raw gasoline enter the river from outboard motor use in July and bank erosion rates from boat use equal the equivalent of a 100-year flood every 10 years (Fox, personal communication). The solid waste disposal issues have increased dramatically with the increasing population. New landfill area and modification of existing landfills are being implemented. Contamination of ground water via leaching of pollutants is of concern. In addition, the growing population has demanded and received monies from the federal government for the construction of new highways and bridges over the Kenai River. One bridge, near Sterling, has been delayed because the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service raised concerns about increased residential and industrial development associated with increased population growth along the Kenai River. A number of contaminated sites have been identified that need long term clean up. These include Alaska Department of Transportation facilities, underground fuel leaks from gas stations, groundwater contamination from commercial laundry waste disposal, and oil industry disposal sites (Figures 3, 4,and 5).
It is obvious to the team that we cannot sustain our environment with this increased population growth. That growth is well illustrated by aerial photos of the Kenai River area. Figure 6 shows the amount of development along the riverbank in 1975 compared to 1998. If the buildings that are there today were only three hundred feet further back from the bank, there would be a sufficient buffer to prevent runoff contamination in that area from entering the river. The increased development is not necessarily what our community wants. We only had to look to Anchorage to see what we do not want here in our community–pollution from cars, urban sprawl, creeks without (or significantly reduced) naturally produced salmon populations (Tarbox, personal communication), areas of toxic waste that need to be cleaned up, and the list goes on.
What was the risk of Anchorage type development taking place in our area? To our surprise we found that is was very high. There is no regional planning or effective zoning laws within the Kenai Peninsula Borough. Individual cities have zoning powers but these are not coordinated between cities. In addition, conflicts over surface land use and sub-surface mineral rights are evident in Homer, Alaska and other areas of the peninsula. In summary, there were no mechanisms to control population growth and the increase contamination of the environment associated with that growth. Risk to our lifestyle is very high.
OUR SOLUTION: REGIONAL PLANNING
Regional Planning is done on the community level of society in order to restore environmental stability and try to solve social and economic problems. Long and short term land use plans are developed to provide for the success and progression of such communities in need of growth and development. The key point of Regional Planning is to allow people to use a community's land and natural resources for residential, commercial, institutional, and recreational purposes to the highest capability the community's resources allow. In the process of Regional Planning, such issues looked at are the development of natural resources, air pollution, traffic congestion, protecting fragile wilderness ecosystems, the effect of growth, industrial development, and tourism effects on a community. Regional plans range from everything from building new schools and public housing facilities, controlling pollution and conserving forests, building new parks and trails, to writing legislation concerning social, economic, and environmental concepts. Before making detailed plans for the community, such aspects as economic and legal challenges to the plans are examined. Those who make the plans try to make sure that their additions to the community will survive the challenges put on them. Usually local governments and citizens' advisory committees are involved in such endeavors with the addition of a trained city planner.
After deciding on Regional Planning as a solution by which we might find a course of action to help our community become a Sustainable Community, we established various criteria to judge action plans. We posed our criteria as questions:
We also devised ideas to limit the exponential growth of our community so it will not become unsustainable in the future. Some of these solutions included: raising taxes, reducing the people allowed in specific areas, increasing residential lot sizes, and decreasing industrial development. Because our focus was on humans as a contaminant we feel that there should be a dual approach. One is to reduce the amount of pollutants distributed by each human in our community. Another is to zone our communities and area to help ensure that we will promote activities that are environmentally friendly and compatible with a sustainable society. This solution of course is only an example of an action plan that could be developed through the steps of Regional Planning. However, our conviction is that by limiting the amount of pollution produced by each individual in our community, we may help limit the degree to which our community will abuse its natural resources.
In summary, unless we deal with human population growth in the context of a sustainable environment we will not maintain our environment. Looking at contamination from an isolated viewpoint of each contaminant is only part of the solution. The long-range solution is to limit consumption and growth to levels that are as compatible with our environment as possible.
City of Soldotna, 1997. City of Soldotna Proposed Budget for Fiscal Year 2004. http://www.ci.soldotna.ak.us/
Eudy, Jan, 2003. Advancing Applications in Contamination Control. http://www.azez.com/parkingmain.html
Fox, Jeff. 2003. Personal communication. Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Soldotna, AK
Kenai Watershed Forum, 2003. Non-point Source Pollution Monitoring Hudrocarons Fact Sheet. http://www.kenaiwatershed.org
Lupisella, M.L, 2002. Human Mars Mission Contamination Issues. www.lpi.usra.edu
Redefining Progress. 2003. Ecological Footprint Quiz. www.myfootprint.org
Skyview HS NOSB Team, 2002. The Future of the Kenai River Estuary–An Economic Model for Survival. Submitted NOSB 2003 Project submitted to the University of Alaska, Fairbanks
Tarbox, Kenneth. 2003. Personal communication. Retired-Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Soldotna, Alaska
Tilford, Dave. 2000. Sustainable Consumption: Why Consumption Matters
U.S Census Bureau. 2002. Kenai Peninsula Borough, Alaska State and County Quick Facts http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/index.html