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OU Student Identifies Fertilizer as Cause of Aquatic, Economic 'Dead Zone' in Gulf

Danielle Kaminski’s report, “Gulf of Mexico Dead Zone,” was written in Macomb Township, but its environmental and economic implications extend as far as the Gulf of Mexico.

A Macomb Township resident’s college paper has members of the scientific community turning a critical eye on the use of fertilizers along the southern Mississippi River.

Oakland University senior Danielle Kaminski’s report, “Gulf of Mexico Dead Zone,” was recently selected by the American Society of Safety Engineers’ Foundation as the winner of the 2012 Student Paper Competition.

“Our professor encouraged us to write about an environmental topic and I wanted to talk about the Clean Water Act and some of its flaws,” said Kaminski, 27, who will graduate this summer with a bachelor’s degree in occupational safety and health.

Fertilizer runoff endangers Gulf aquatic life

In her initial research, Kaminski came across an area known as the Gulf of Mexico “dead zone,” where the Mississippi River feeds into the gulf and there are such low oxygen levels that aquatic life is unable to survive. Curious as to the cause of these low oxygen levels, or hypoxic water, Kaminksi began her investigation and found herself continually coming back to one source: fertilizer.

“It was one of the biggest things, but I never thought about how the use of fertilizer (along the Mississippi River) could affect something as far out there as the gulf,” she said. “I think I knew it, but never put it together.”

In her report, Kaminski specifically identifies fertilizers that are altered to boost their oxygen content. While more oxygen may seem beneficial, this alteration also causes the fertilizer to have a higher concentration of nitrogen and phosphorus.

When this nitrogen later runs off from the Mississippi River and into the Gulf of Mexico, it causes algae growth and oxygen reduction, which in turn restricts the lives of bottom dwellers such as worms, snails, crabs, clams and lobsters that are unable move away from the oxygen-deprived waters.

The sea life that is mobile moves further from the shores to survive. As a result, fishermen must travel farther, use more fuel, and charge higher fees for their catch.

“It’s really interesting that the fertilizer we need to feed our country is affecting our water and marine life, and our fishing and economy,” Kaminksi said or her findings. “One thing leads to another. Everything is interconnected.”

Report garners award, publication consideration

As the winner of the competition, Kaminksi will also receive a cash award and a stipend to attend ASSE’s annual professional development conference in Denver, CO.

The ASSE Editorial Review Board is currently considering the paper for publication in Professional Safety.

“Danielle’s paper presented a very complete view of the benefits as well as the unintended consequences of one of the current ‘green’ initiatives of using bio-fuels in relation to how the environment is impacted,” said Frank D’Orsi, CSP, ARM, chair of the Editorial Review Board, in a prepared statement.

While scientists and government representatives determine how to address the “dead zone” in the South, Kaminski said people all over the country, including her hometown of Macomb Township, can do simple things protect the environment from home.

“It’s as simple as recycling, water conservation, carpooling–everything you do has a consequence. I think everyoyd needs to do their part and teach their children. It’s easy one you get started, but you have to put for the effort. That was my biggest take away from this.”

Upon graduation, Kaminski said she hopes to continue working at General Motors and ultimately serve in the Environmental Protection Agency.

“I would also like to write a book,” she said.

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