Penn State alumnus leads effort to restore the Chesapeake

Jamie Oberdick
July 10, 2019

ANNAPOLIS, Maryland — Dana Aunkst, armed with his Penn State chemical engineering degree, has taken on the biggest challenge of his career so far: restoration of the Chesapeake Bay.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) named Aunkst, who graduated from Penn State in 1983, as the new director of the EPA’s Chesapeake Bay Program Office (CBPO) in December of 2018. As director, Aunkst strategically plans and coordinates activities for restoration in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. The Chesapeake Bay is North America’s largest estuary, with a watershed that covers 64,000 square miles across New York, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia.

Watersheds act as catchalls for stormwater runoff from all land areas that enters creeks and rivers as it makes its way to the estuary. This runoff also delivers sediment, phosphorous and nitrogen to the bay.

That’s a major problem, especially considering that the Chesapeake watershed is home to more than 3,600 species of fish, plants and animals, and it encompasses thousands of rivers, streams and creeks. Eventually, the stormwater runoff results in the creation of “dead zones” — areas in the water with low oxygen caused by excessive nutrients.

This type of pollution has long been an issue for the Chesapeake, but there have been recent improvements. A 2018 peer-reviewed study described a “positive and statistically significant trend” in the quality of the water. It’s estimated that 42 percent of the bay and the waterways leading to the bay meet water quality standards — that’s the highest estimate since 1985, according to CBP. While 58 percent of the waterways and the bay are still below standard, the CBP’s efforts have reduced nitrogen entering the Chesapeake by 11 percent, reduced phosphorus by 21 percent and reduced sediment by 10 percent. The next goal is to have all practices and controls in place by 2025 to achieve significantly improved water quality, such as dissolved oxygen levels suitable for all aquatic life.

Despite this success, Aunkst said many challenges remain.

“During the last 35 years, actions taken by the CBP partners at the federal, state and local levels have made a significant and positive impact,” Aunkst said. “However, significant challenges, including changing environmental conditions and other stressors linked to the growing population and climate change could adversely impact the pace of restoration of both the Chesapeake and the rivers and streams that feed it.”

The slowed restoration is not just of ecological significance, but also of economic importance. The Chesapeake watershed’s regional economy provides 8.3 million jobs and an annual revenue of almost $400 billion. Commercial fishing and seafood industries directly generate more than 5,000 jobs and an annual revenue of $56 million. In addition, the watershed’s recreation and tourism industries directly support more than 820,800 jobs and an annual revenue of $13 billion.

“Clearly, a healthy Chesapeake Bay is not only a very important resource locally, but also a treasure nationally,” Aunkst said.

Aunkst is tasked with cultivating solutions to these issues to continue restoring the Chesapeake. According to Aunkst, Penn State is a critical component of his ability to take on this project.

“Engineering is about developing, designing and implementing solutions to challenges. My Penn State degree in chemical engineering prepared me for a career in solving complex problems,” Aunkst said. “Whether those challenges were related to the science of protecting the environment or the development of policies and strategies for implementation of sound solutions, my engineering degree provided me with the foundation that continues to allow me to be successful as I advance in my career.”

After graduating from Penn State, Aunkst gathered extensive environmental and regulatory experience, working 33 years in private industry and local and state government. He began his career as a chemical engineer at an industrial facility, where he was responsible for industrial waste pre-treatment, a critical step in treating the facility’s inorganic and heavy metal-laden wastewater. The entire process was subject to state and federal statutes and regulations.

“Overseeing the operation and quality control of that waste treatment turned my interest to environmental engineering,” Aunkst said.

In 2002, Aunkst joined the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PADEP). As the PADEP deputy secretary for field operations, he directed the operations of six regional offices to implement the full array of state and federal environmental regulations. As the PADEP executive deputy secretary for programs, Aunkst directed the activities of more than 2,000 professional and technical staff engaged in all aspects of environmental protection.

While serving as PADEP deputy secretary for water, Aunkst oversaw programs for surface and groundwater quality, soil and water conservation, public water supply withdrawals, sewage facilities planning, point source sewage, industrial discharges, flood protection and stream improvements. In addition, Aunkst led the change to resuscitate Pennsylvania’s Chesapeake Bay restoration effort by authoring the 2016 Pennsylvania Chesapeake Bay Reboot Strategy.

This experience in solving environmental issues, combined with what he learned as a Penn State student, reassures Aunkst that he is up to the task of protecting one of America’s largest environmental and economic resources.

“As a problem solver, I am looking forward to the challenges in front of us in maintaining the momentum and getting to a restored Chesapeake Bay,” Aunkst said.

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated July 10, 2019