Rappahannock Friends and Lovers of Our Watershed

Press Coverage on

Air and Water Quality in the Shenandoah National Park -
How I
t Affects Rappahannock County and Why We Care

March 27, 2003: How Shenandoah National Park's Air Affects Us
April 23, 2003: How Water Flowing from the Shenandoah Park Affects Our Lives

©Rappahannock News 2003

How Shenandoah National Park's air affects us
First in a two part series

Shenandoah Valley. On the left is good, clean air. On the right is air laden with sulfates and dust.

This photo was taken from Dickey Ridge along Skyline Drive, looking southwest over the Shenandoah Valley. On the left is good, clean air. On the right is air laden with sulfates and dust. Photo courtesy of Shenandoah National Park

With neighboring Shenandoah National Park rated the second most polluted park in the nation, residents of Rappahannock County may want to know how that air quality is affecting them.

Reports show, for instance, ozone may be harming vineyards and other plants in the county.

Shane Spitzer, the Shenandoah National Park's specialist on air and water quality will tell how we are faring at a public forum on Saturday, April 12 from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. at the Old Sperryville Schoolhouse, formerly the Faith Mountain Company in Sperryville.

Spitzer has 10 years experience in monitoring the park's air and water quality. He is the featured speaker in a program presented by RappFLOW and sponsored by such groups as the Rappahannock League for Environmental Protection, Piedmont Environmental Council, Sperryville Gateway Project the park and others.

The atmosphere in which persons live and breathe in Rappahannock County involves wind-directed air that is either passing through the park, or is on its way to the park. Water in the county's streams and rivers flows down from the park. Since the park monitors its air and water quality, we get the benefit of its knowledge free.

Should we be concerned?

Last September, a report by the National Parks Conservation Association named the five most polluted national parks in the United States.

Based on haze, ozone and acid precipitation, first place went to the Great Smokey Mountains National Park. It was said at times to have "ozone pollution (that) exceeds that of Atlanta, Ga., and even rivals Los Angeles, Ca."

Second place as the most polluted park? The Shenandoah National Park.

The National Park Service (NPS) in a September 2002 report entitled, "Air Quality in the National Parks," agreed with this ranking.

Its report noted visibility from Skyline Drive and the Appalachian Trail had shrunk to as little as one mile on smoggy summer days, although visibility at the park had improved slightly on the least-polluted days.

But, instead of seeing the natural range of 115 miles, average visibility was now down to 15 miles. The NPS report also noted acid precipitation in certain areas was degrading streams for native fish. Brook trout fisheries in Shenandoah were being affected.

And, the report confirmed that ozone was injuring vegetation. The sources of the air pollution were fossil-fuel power plants, industrial facilities and motor vehicle emissions.

Fossil-fuel power plants and industrial facilities affecting the park are primarily located in the mid-West and the mid-Atlantic regions, particularly Ohio, West Virginia, Virginia, Pennsylvania and Kentucky, with the air pollution traveling hundreds of miles to get here.

The NPS report noted such pollution "accounts for 60 to 80 percent of the visibility impairment in the eastern parks." Motor vehicle emissions arrive at the park carried by wind currents from the developmental sprawl of Northern Virginia, the Norfolk area and, increasingly, the Shenandoah Valley.

On ozone and its impact on vegetation, the NPS report notes, "Ground level ozone is one of the most widespread pollutants affecting vegetation and public health. . . plants are generally more sensitive to ozone than humans, and the effects range from visible injury on leaves, premature leaf loss, reduced photosynthesis, and reduced growth."

The Shenandoah National Park's web site shows photos of ozone injury to leaves of yellow poplar and common milkweed.

Ozone may be impacting Rappahannock County's vineyards. In testimony before the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (VDEQ) on Jan. 6, the Piedmont Environmental Council noted in connection with increased ozone from power plants that, "Ozone is responsible for a variety of symptoms in grapes, including tissue collapse, necrosis, flecking, bronzing, and bleaching, resulting in withering and early dropping of leaves.

"Beside the general stunting of growth, ozone depresses flower and bud formation. Tissue killed by ozone becomes readily susceptible to infection from fungus. Even at levels below the EPA standards, ozone often combines with sulfur dioxide to cause plant injury before either would cause injury alone."

Ozone is a major problem in the park. In 2000 and reaffirmed in 2001, the VDEQ recommended the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) designate the Page and Madison county portions of Shenandoah National Park as a "non-attainment area," thus likely requiring more stringent regulations be applied to reduce its air pollution.

Unfortunately, 99 percent of the park's air pollution comes from outside its boundaries.

The northern Shenandoah Valley is one of the culprits. Since last summer, jurisdictions in the northern part of the valley have been working with EPA and VDEQ to avoid the area being designated a non-attainment zone when new EPA ozone rules come into effect next year.

If they fail, federal transportation funds can be withheld. New and expanded industrial operations must minimize air pollution. A certain percentage of pollutants must be reduced each year, and once the pollution problem is resolved, the program must be maintained for ten years.

At the end of last December, the City of Winchester and Frederick County signed off with EPA and VDEQ on an Early Action Compact designed to bring about compliance with the new EPA ozone regulations.

Shenandoah, Warren, and Clarke counties may voluntarily participate in this effort.

The Shenandoah National Park and Rappahannock County are interested in this action. Both are slowly being encircled by areas having a potential for being designated as "non-attainment zones" unless they get their ozone levels under control.

Fauquier County is expected to join Northern Virginia as a non-attainment area, possibly by next year.

Then there is the public-private plan to widen I-81, where traffic contributes significantly to the ozone pollution in the valley.

Currently, the average annual daily traffic on I-81 near Winchester is 53,000 vehicles a day (by comparison, Route 211 in Rappahannock County near Massie's Corner carries 5,500 vehicles per day.)

In 20 years, I-81 traffic might double to over 100,000 vehicles a day. I-81 was designed to handle a level of truck traffic of 15 percent. Now, 40 percent of its traffic is trucks.

One plan is to widen I-81 to eight lanes, with four lanes dedicated to trucks. More air pollution appears to be in the offing.

Is there any help on the horizon? One new technology might pinpoint specific sources of air pollution. NASA's Terra spacecraft monitors the air pollutants, carbon monoxide and methane,as it spins around the earth 16 times a day.

The measurements can also serve as a tracer for nitrogen oxides and ozone near the ground.

An instrument called the MOPITT, which stands for Measurements of Pollution in the Troposphere (the Earth's lowest layer of atmosphere), can pinpoint such air pollution with a resolution of 14 miles at its lowest orbit. It can measure the concentrations of carbon monoxide in three-mile layers down a vertical column of atmosphere and help trace pollution back to its source. Field studies may then be used to isolate the specific sources. Increased regulation or possible legal action might then be initiated.


Rappahannock News ©Times Community Newspapers 2004

How water flowing from the Shenandoah Park affects our lives
By Don Audette
Last in a series

The South Branch of the Thornton River flows beneath the new pedestrian bridge in Sperryville, the gateway to the Shenandoah National Park

The South Branch of the Thornton River flows beneath the new pedestrian bridge in Sperryville, the gateway to the Shenandoah National Park. Photo courtesy of Richard Lykes

Water quality in the Shenandoah National Park is of interest to Rappahannock County residents as all water flowing through the county comes from mountains in the park which has been rated the second most polluted national park for air quality.
Experts will discuss how air and water quality in the Shenandoah National Park affect our lives, activities and economy at a special public forum on Saturday, April 12 from 10 a.m. to 12 noon at the Old Sperryville School (the old Faith Mountain Company store) in Sperryville. Everyone is invited.

Sponsored by RappFlow, a grass-roots organization interested in preserving the watersheds of the county, the group's first public forum will include a panel of experts who will talk about the history of the Thornton River (which flows by the area where the forum is being held) and the importance of stream health to our county.

The featured speaker is Shane Spitzer, an air and water quality expert at the Shenandoah National Park. He will share his experiences over the past 10 years monitoring and understanding the air and water quality issues of the park.

The mountains in Rappahannock County's portion of the park stretch skyward as high as 3,400 feet. Sperryville is a mere 700 feet above sea level.

Being half a mile higher, the mountains receive much more acid deposition (sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides) from the rain, snow, sleet, fog and particulate matter passing by these higher elevations than we do in the foothills.

Under normal conditions, water seeping into the ground at the park's higher elevations takes an average of three years to flush through the soil to streams and down into Rappahannock County.

But, the ability of the soil in the park to absorb acid deposition is being depleted, possibly permanently. This is not a good thing. The acidity of soil affects the acidity of the water getting into streams and rivers. It also affects the availability of plant nutrients in the soil.

The acidity in the stream water descending from the park increases or decreases according to the bedrock over which the streams flow.

Luckily, Rappahannock County has bedrock that, for the most part, neutralizes the current level of acidity.

Water emerging from the park is almost always neutral, with a pH of 7.0.

Bolton Branch, between Flint Hill and Chester Gap has basaltic bedrock, causing a pH a little above 7.0. The Hazel River, south of Sperryville and flowing over granitic bedrock, has a slightly acidic pH below 7.0.

A panel made up of persons with ties to the county will discuss the Thornton River and the importance of healthy streams in the county. The panel includes:

  • Charles "Pete" Estes, chairman of the Rappahannock County Board of Supervisors who will describe the county's experience with a very polluted Thornton River back in the 1950s, caused by human waste and other pollutants openly flowing into the river. There was also a bout with chlorine that killed fish in the South Branch of the Thornton River when the sewerage treatment plant in Sperryville first opened;
  • Rachel Bynum of Waterpenny CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) farm which specializes in organically grown vegetables, will explain why good, clean water helps the county's agricultural community;
  • Beth Gall, a teacher at Rappahannock County High School and an official stream monitor for the Commonwealth of Virginia, will talk of student involvement in stream ecology matters;
  • A representative from the Thornton River Fly Shop in Sperryville will explain its interest in the health of the streams and how fishing helps the tourism industry and the county's economy not only through the sport, but also by customers staying at local bed and breakfasts, dining in restaurants and purchasing items in gift shops. Janet Davis will introduce the speakers and serve as panel moderator.

Shane Spitzer, physical scientist at the park's headquarters in Luray, will go into detail on the air and water quality in Shenandoah National Park and the relationship between the two. Using equipment from the park, he will demonstrate how water conductivity, pH, discharge, the extent of water-borne pathogens are measured.

Shelly May, the Rappahannock Watershed Field Coordinator for the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation, will explain the Rappahannock River Tributary Strategy Plan.

May will speak on the goal of engaging everyone -- individuals, businesses, schools, communities, and governments--in improving the water quality in watersheds such as those within Rappahannock County.

While the county may receive good, clean water from the park, it is responsible for its quality as it makes its way through the county on its way to the Chesapeake Bay.

The Tributary Strategy seeks to balance the natural chemistry mix and water clarity in Rappahannock County's streams and rivers to sustain a healthy aquatic system.

The setting for this public forum is of interest. As part of the Sperryville Gateway Project, a new pedestrian bridge over the Thornton River is now in place and is being landscaped.

Soon it will be available to the public to walk easily into "downtown" Sperryville. The Gateway project is supported by the Shenandoah National Park.

There will be activities both inside the building and alongside the Thornton River. There also will be free food and a free map of the major streams in Rappahannock County, part of a planned series of natural resource maps of our county.

Sponsors for the RappFLOW event are: Shenandoah National Park, Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation, Rappahannock County High School, Sperryville Gateway Project, Rappahannock League for Environmental Protection, Piedmont Environmental Council and the Madison County Task Force for Sustainable Growth.

Participants at the April 2003 RappFLOW public forum on Air and Water Quality in the Shenandoah National Park.

Participants at the April 2003 RappFLOW public forum on Air and Water Quality in the Shenandoah National Park hear local history of the Thornton River from landowners, fishermen, and school teachers, as well as a scientist from the Park. (photo by Francois-Marie Patorni).