Earth Day 21: Past and present environmental issues remain challenges

Fifty-one years after the founding of Earth Day, with the first on April 22, 1970, man-made pollution and the resulting problems created by global warming and climate change remain the greatest threat to the planet, according to environmental scientists.

“Certainly the biggest concern is climate change because it has so many possibilities to impact our environment,” said Caryl Fish, professor of environmental sciences at Saint Vincent College near Latrobe.

Fish sees the correlation between climate change caused by human activities that increase carbon monoxide and methane and trends towards more severe global weather conditions.

“We are the culprits of the burning of combustible materials,” which has released more carbon monoxide into the atmosphere each year for more than 30 years, said John Stolz, director of the Center for Environmental Research and Education at the ‘Duquesne University.

“You don’t want a global pandemic forcing you to do something” against pollution, said Stolz, professor of environmental microbiology.

The oceans are polluted by huge “plastic floating islands” that have been washed out into the waters and pushed together by ocean currents, Stolz said.

“You can see all the (plastic) garbage ending up in the ocean,” Stolz said.

In Westmoreland County, one of the biggest threats to the environment is water quality, said Greg Phillips, executive director of the Westmoreland Conservation District.

“Bulk sediment is the # 1 pollution problem,” Phillips said. “You don’t want a bunch of sediment in the streams.”

As development takes hold of more forest and farmland in the county, there is more impervious land, increasing the amount of stormwater runoff flowing into streams. This has impacted watersheds such as Turtle Creek, Brush Creek, Jacks Run, Sewickley Creek, and Jacobs Creek, he said.

“Our challenge is that municipalities need to work together” on their municipal separate storm sewer system program, commonly referred to as MS4, to reduce storm water issues. But, “the storms were more intense, causing more runoff with more damage,” Philips said.

An emerging environmental challenge is the spread of invasive species – plants, Phillips said.

Along the Loyalhanna Watershed Association property in the east and center of the county, the biggest challenge remains a century-old problem – the drainage of once active mines along the watershed, said Susan Huba, executive director of the ‘association.

“We are making efforts to restore water quality from past problems – coal mining and abandoned mines. Abandoned mine drainage is the big pollutant. We still have a lot of work to do, ”said Huba.

The emerging threat to water quality is stormwater management and extreme weather events, Huba said. This adds to the sedimentation problems along the 2,500 miles of stream. The watershed covers 298 square miles, from the western slopes of Laurel Ridge in the south of Ligonier Township, to the Conemaugh River in Saltsburg, where the creek and river form the Kiski River, which empties into the Allegheny River.

“There are still a lot of challenges,” she added.


Earth Day Activities

  • Friendly competition between teams of volunteers of up to 10 colleagues, garbage cleaning in Allegheny County from April 21 to June 22, sponsored by Allegheny CleanWays. The winning teams will receive prizes from some of the region’s environmentally conscious companies. Members of the Allegheny CleanWays & Friends of the Riverfront team will present creative and enjoyable challenges each week to promote responsible stewardship and strategies to do ‘more good’. Register Thursday morning and evening for a garbage cleanup session along the Allegheny River using the organization’s boat, Rachel Carson. Both sessions will depart from the Steel City Rowing Pier at 101 Arch St., Verona. Sessions are 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. The boat will take the volunteers to sites that are difficult to access from land.
  • The cleanup of Aspinwall’s garbage is scheduled for April 23-25. The “Green Streets” initiative is led by Aspinwall Neighbors. Supply kits are available at the borough building. Details available at aspinwallneighbors.org.
  • The Carnegie Science Center in Pittsburgh hosts special events and programming for Earth Week until Sunday. There will be pop-up experiences on certain days, virtual experiences on Facebook, and sensitive sensory hours. Topics covered include healthy eating, planting and composting, clouds, water purification, biodiversity and ocean plastic. For more details, visit carnegiesciencecenter.org/programs/earth-week/
  • Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy offers guided hikes and other activities. Earth Day events include free yoga at Schenley Plaza, free PNC carousel rides, children’s activities such as kite-making, and a bird scavenger hunt. In-person and digital events will also be featured.
  • Earth Day Lake Cleanup, 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. Thursday, Loyalhanna Lake, Meet at the Bush Recreation Area Lodge, 200 Boat Dock Road, New Alexandria. For details, call 724-639-9013.
  • Earth Day Pollinator Nature Walk, Jacobs Creek Watershed Association and Scottdale Public Library, 6 to 7 p.m., entrance to Coal and Coke Trail in Scottdale, Mildred Street, Scottdale. The event is sold out.
  • Virtual Earth Day Program – “Permanent and Perpetual Plastic”, by the Loyalhanna Watershed Association. Webinar led by the Pennsylvania Master Naturalist and the Penn State Extension Master Gardener Diane Harshberger and Penn State Master Gardener Intern Patti Flowers Jacobina. Free program on Zoom at 6.30 p.m. Pre-registration required on shorturl.at/lzACY. Contact JoAnn Thistlethwaite at joann @ thistlethwaite.net for more information.

Joe Napsha is a writer for Tribune-Review. You can contact Joe at 724-836-5252, [email protected] or via Twitter .