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Clean Air Ambassador: Rebecca Van De Water

The first day that a ship rolls in, we all can't help but notice that our incredibly pristine air is visibly sullied by the large smoke stacks on the ships.

Years ago, as a child in Massachusetts, I remember waking up to my mother trying to protect us from our town's regular "mosquito spraying" in the nights. Trucks would rumble up and down the streets, spraying an insecticide into the air, in an effort to reduce the summer mosquito population. My mother would be ready with signs on the yard, requesting no spraying onto the property, would run around and close all the windows when she heard the truck come, and would even run outside to yell at the trucks. This is the very first memory I have of becoming aware of air pollution, and the importance of protecting our lungs.

Now, I live in Juneau. We have three major air pollution issues in our remote town: cruise ship emissions, wood smoke and mining emissions. Cruise ship season is from April through September. The first day that a ship rolls in, we all can't help but notice that our incredibly pristine air is visibly sullied by the large smoke stacks on the ships.

My heart falls on this day, every year. We have five ships in our downtown harbor daily during the summer months, and the air is visibly gray/purple, and greasy in texture. We breathe this in every day of the summer.

Access to fuel is tricky in our town, since there are no roads into the city; access is by sea and air only. We have fantastic hydropower, but are cut off from the supply whenever snow avalanches take out a portion of this system. Oil and propane are shipped in which is expensive. Families here often turn to woodstoves for heat in the long winters. While this is far more economical than the other options, there is little regulation of these emissions. Anyone can have a woodstove, and of any vintage, but when there are temperature inversions, all woodstove use is banned. During these bans, there is no distinction made between old models and the modern efficient ones. While these bans are appropriate for minimizing air emissions, many families are left without adequate heat.

We also have two active gold mines in Juneau, with a proposed third. Air quality concerns are ongoing here. The two current mines are accessed by air and sea only, existing nearby off the road system. The proposed mine will literally be in the heart of downtown, and this is of particular concern to each of us, as it will have direct impact on our air and water.

Additionally, I am told that the native people up north in “The Bush” are impacted by air pollution in a surprising way: Their native foods (caribou, bowhead whale, seals, etc…) are incredibly contaminated by airborne substances such as PCBs, which collect in vegetation, and then are eaten by these animals. The Alaska Native peoples rely on these traditional food sources for survival and to maintain their culture. However their health is in jeopardy as a result of this contamination.

I want our elected leaders in Washington, D.C. to help us address these problems. We should regulate cruise ship emissions and continue to find ways to make these ships "greener." We should regulate the mining industry's management of air emissions. We should continue to fund research on clean, green, and sustainable heat/energy sources, and we should work with countries to reduce their use of contaminants such as PCBs.

Ambassador Group Affiliation: 
Juneau Family Health and Birth Center
Ambassador Profession: 
Certified Nurse-Midwife, Advanced Nurse-Practitioner