WVU climate change expert expects long term air & water pollution to remain steady despite quarantines


Nicolas Zegre talks with a journalist after his presentation at the Academic Media Day, which was hosted by University Relations at the Erickson Alumni Center April 1, 2019. (WVU Photo)

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – Although satellite video shows pollution dissipating across the United States and China due to the quarantines imposed by the coronavirus pandemic, a climate change expert from WVU doesn’t think West Virginia will see the same results.

Nicolas Zegre, director of the West Virginia University Mountain Hydrolology Laboratory, bases his conclusion on the operations of the mining and energy industries in the state, despite the stay-at-home order that was put into effect by Governor Justice on Tuesday, according to a release from WVU. During the live conference announcing the order, Justice stated coal was an essential business.

The release said that according to Zegre, the top contributors to water and air pollution are industries related to mining, natural gas electricity and manufacturing.

Nicolas Zegre

“Four of the top five largest producers of pollution in the state are related to power generation,” said Zegre, associate professor of forest hydrology in the Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design. “The fifth is a metal processing facility. Only if the pandemic disrupts our economy at the levels we’ve seen in China and Italy, then maybe we’d see a short-term reduction in pollution.”

The release stated that in parts of the U.S., satellite images taken during the first three weeks of March show less nitrogen dioxide compared to this time last year. Nitrogen dioxide, a gaseous air pollutant, comes from vehicle emissions and power plants, according to the release.

The release detailed that China has seen more dramatic dips in air pollution. Earlier in March, a scientist from Stanford University calculated that two months of pollutions reduction in China may bee enough to save the lives of 4,000 children under 5 and 73,000 adults over 70, according to the release.

“Coal consumption in China fell 36 percent over the last month because of the disruption in manufacturing,” Zegre said. “China slowed down those operations.”

Along with the decreased air pollution levels in China, Zegre also thinks the now crystal-clear canals in Venice, Italy will are bound to return to the state they were in prior to the outbreak.

“While the clarity of the Venice canals has changed, the water quality itself has not,” Zegre said. “The chemistry of the water hasn’t changed. It’s clear due to the lack of boat traffic.”

Zegre stated that while other parts of the world have halted or slowed operations that spit out carbon emissions, West Virginia has so far has not. He stated that even if the state did decide to do so, the long-term enviromental challenges would still remain.

“Contaminated water systems are due to manufacturing, so those problems will continue to exist despite what happens,” he said. “They’re not going away. Acid mine drainage doesn’t care what’s going on with coronavirus.”

The release stated that it is estimated that nearly 913,000 West Virginians already consume water from systems not compliant with the U.S. Safe Drinking Water Act, based on a 2019 report titled “Watered Down Justice” by three national environmental nonprofits. Another report, published by nonprofits DigDeep and the US Water Alliance stated that 2 million people in the Ohio Valley do not have access to clean drinking water and basic plumbing, the release stated.

“Another chronic water quality problem in West Virginia is the sanitation and lack of adequate infrastructure,” Zegre said. “There’s emerging research that is suggesting COVID-19 can spread through fecal matter. That poses a problem for parts of West Virginia that have inadequate septic systems and communities not tied into water treatment facilities.”

Zegre said that even in areas with water treatment systems, he wonders if staff shortages due to the pandemic would affect water quality in those places as well.

“Something we need to consider is the staffing of our water treatment facilities,” he said. “Will this pandemic impact the workforce that ensures we have clean, reliable sources of water for the community?”

Zegre continued.

“Regardless, there’s a very clear connection between our public health, environmental health and economic health. I think the citizens are awakening to not only the inequality of our economic system but also the unsustainability of that system. We have some very real opportunities to rethink how we do things in West Virginia.”

“West Virginia’s pollution problems are largely chronic and can be addressed principally through active cleanup and mitigation. In other words, they are not going to correct themselves in the absence of industrial activities.”

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