My World: How Does I-81 Effect the Environment?

Aug 7, 2019

Trucks and cars moving through the Shenandoah Valley on Interstate 81.
Credit Bridget Manley

For a new WMRA series called My World, earlier this year we asked local science students to submit their questions about the environment.  We received a lot of great questions, and selected one from Olivia Gardner, who just graduated in June.  She asked about the environmental health of Interstate 81. WMRA’s Bridget Manley produced a two-part report.  Here’s Part One.

[Cars and trucks driving by….]

Interstate 81 is one of the most important and most-traveled north-south highways on the east coast. With more than 325 miles between the state borders at West Virginia and Tennessee, I-81 cuts through 21 cities and towns, 25 colleges and universities, and 13 counties in Virginia alone.

That prompted this question from Olivia Gardner, who just graduated from Riverheads High School in Augusta County to ask:

OLIVIA GARDNER: Since our school is so close to Interstate 81, I often wonder, what effect does Interstate 81 have on our environment in the valley?

Andrew Alden is the Executive Director of the Interstate 81 Corridor Coalition.
Credit Andrew Alden on LinkedIn

ANDREW ALDEN: Well, primarily you’re looking at water quality, air quality, and then things like nuisance issues or quality of life issues like noise. And I would say by far the biggest impact that is of concern is air quality.

Andrew Alden is the Executive Director of the Interstate 81 Corridor Coalition. He says that the biggest threat to the environment and the people living around the interstate are the particulates that are emitted from vehicles, and the more than 11 million tractor trailers that use the road every year. 

Particulates -- or particulate matter -- is the term for a mixture of solid particles and liquid droplets found in the air. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, they can get deep into your lungs and even into your bloodstream.

Dr. Bruce Wiggins is an environmental biologist and professor in the biology department at James Madison University. He says that people living around busy roadways can experience heart and lung disease, asthma, coughing and difficulty breathing.

Dr. Bruce Wiggins is an environmental biologist and professor in the biology department at James Madison University.
Credit James Madison University

BRUCE WIGGINS: It’s been shown that the more of this particulate matter can get deep down into your lungs. The more of that you breathe, there’s just a tendency for reduced life expectancy, you know, overall. So you just have more stress, more likely to die. So it’s not anything that anyone is just going to keel over and die from, it’s more chronic quality of life thing that everyone is affected.

And those particulates affect the entire environment.  They can damage farm crops and forests, cause nutrient changes in rivers and other bodies of water, and they can affect the diversity of ecosystems, according to the EPA.

ALDEN: Although vehicles are much cleaner than they used to be, in particular cars -- and later model trucks -- are also much cleaner than they used to be.  Diesel engines, and there are a lot of them on Interstate 81 because there’s a lot of trucks, they have a problem with small particulate pm-30 type emissions that cause problems. Particularly when they make their way into people’s lungs. That’s really where the primary environmental impact comes from.

And it doesn’t help when there is a major accident on the highway. The I-81 Corridor Improvement Plan, released by the Virginia Commonwealth Transportation Board in late 2018, reported that more than 2,000 vehicle crashes occurred annually on the highway.  The report noted that was the highest percentage for any interstate in Virginia.  And when vehicles are stuck in the delays caused by all those accidents, the idling engines emit more particulates -- and those particulates become more dangerous.

ALDEN: You know, we are plagued by crashes and incidents that occur across 81. The same ones that get us all angry when we try to travel are also really bad for the environment, because you have a lot of trucks that are stopping and starting, they are not operating very efficiently at low speeds, and so in many cases this congestion that occurs is a result of either crowding or crashes. That’s responsible for a lot of pollution too.

Jim Ponticello is the air and noise program manager for VDOT.  He says that while particulates, carbon monoxide and other air pollutants caused by cars and trucks are all problems, Virginia and the nation have come a long way in cleaning up emissions, and every year pollution rates go down in Virginia.

Tractor trailers at a truck stop near Harrisonburg.
Credit Bridget Manley

JIM PONTICELLO: You know it’s important for people to understand that over the last 20 - 25 years, not only have motor vehicle and fuel standards become much more stringent, meaning a new car today is well over 90% cleaner than a new car purchased twenty years ago, but the EPA has implemented much more stringent standards on point sources, power plants, industry, and there have been a lot of local efforts and all these things combined - federal, state, local - have really contributed to much cleaner air quality not only in Virginia, but across the country.

And after the Virginia General Assembly approved funding to expand I-81 in the last legislative session, the question again becomes how will the expansion help or hurt the environment?

It turns out, there are a lot of ideas going around for that as well.

In the next installment of My World, we will take a look at the future of Interstate 81, the pros and cons for the environment of expanding the highway, and some clever ideas to make the interstate - and the health of the people living around it - better.

About Olivia Gardner, who submitted the question about I-81:  Olivia, now a graduate of Riverheads High School in Augusta County, was a student in Courtney Hallacher's Advanced Environmental Science course in Spring 2019.  Olivia was president of the Environmental Science Club at Riverheads.  She's currently enrolled at Blue Ridge Community College (in sight of the Interstate!) for the Fall, and hopes to transfer to Virginia Tech to pursue her interest in plant science.

Courtney Hallacher teaches science courses including advanced environmental science, ecology and anatomy at Riverheads High School.

WMRA is very grateful to Olivia and Courtney for helping us launch this series.  To submit YOUR question about the environment, send a message to WMRA Public Radio on Facebook, or send a tweet @WMRANews.