‘Poisoned Waters’ reveals dangers just beneath the surface

[21 April 2009]

By Aaron Barnhart

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

In the half-dozen times or so I’ve interviewed journalist Hedrick Smith about his “Frontline” specials for PBS, I’ve never heard him this emotional.

“We can put a slow-motion crisis on the back burner for eight weeks, eight months, maybe eight years,” he says, his pitch rising over the phone. “But you can’t put it on the back burner for 25 years without it coming back to haunt you.

“If we don’t start to care about the bodies of water we know and love, we’re not going to have them.”

His sense of alarm is fully borne out by the facts revealed in “Poisoned Waters,” the superb “Frontline” film airing at 9 tonight on PBS stations nationwide (check local listings).

Drawing on interviews with scientists, fishermen, bureaucrats, chicken farmers, whale watchers and other people who rely on and care deeply about America’s waterways, Smith tells a fascinating and disturbing story about the steep decline of our nation’s biggest bodies of water.

And because Smith is one of television’s best storytellers on serious subjects, he knows how to make the water crisis riveting without bogging down viewers in technical mumbo-jumbo or leaving his audience with the burden of knowing there is so much wrong and so little they can do about it.

Again and again, he literally takes us beneath the surface to see the terrible trouble that lies just out of the gorgeous views of America’s shorelines. Of weirdly mutated frogs with six legs and intersexed fish (males carrying eggs). Of drinking water loaded with contaminants, two-thirds of which are so new they elude modern filtration methods.

Waters bereft of life on their floors — “dead zones,” as they’re called, some now the size of Rhode Island. Fish going to market laden with chemicals. People in the know deeply concerned.

“We are ravaging nature and raping nature so fast that we will not have (these waterways) if we don’t change our ways,” Smith says.

One reason he speaks with such passion is that he focuses on two estuaries he knows well: the Chesapeake Bay, along the eastern seaboard where he spends most of the year; and Washington’s Puget Sound, where he has a summer home.

Smith, who was Moscow bureau chief in the 1980s for the New York Times, has traveled the world numerous times, but for “Poisoned Waters” he only had to drive a short distance and point his cameras straight down. He scuba dives into a river that feeds into Puget Sound to show a factory drainage pipe spewing nasty-looking filth 24/7 into the water. You can’t see it from the surface.

What’s shocking about “Poisoned Waters” is how well known the particulars are. Scientists have been scooping up samples for years contaminated with chemicals, mostly from everyday household products. They’ve been pulling PCB-riddled salmon out of the water for decades.

This isn’t the financial meltdown, which forced an inattentive business press to backtrack and figure out what went wrong. The problem is there is no marine equivalent of the Dow Jones crashing. Oil slicks get the public’s attention, but how often do you see those? And yet, one expert estimates that storm water carries the equivalent of an Exxon Valdez-type spill into the waters surrounding Seattle every two years.

Smith says there is a huge disconnect between the people who know there is a problem and the rest of us.

“Seventy-three percent of the people (in Washington State) think Puget Sound is in great shape. Seventy-three percent of the knowledgeable people think Puget Sound is in terrible shape. It is not just this issue, it’s health care, it’s education ... unless it is the hottest subject, we are not doing a good job communicating in our society.”

Some of these experts think we’ve got less than a generation to clean up our act. As Smith reminds us in “Poisoned Waters,” it was only about a generation ago that this country was so gung-ho about ridding the air and water of pollution that a tenth of the population took part in the first Earth Day marches. That public pressure forced President Nixon, not the most outdoorsy guy, to set up the EPA in 1970 and sign the laws that put it in motion, including the Clean Water Act.

Where has the sense of urgency gone? Smith, who has a Pulitzer Prize and national Emmy Awards in his trophy case, does not hesitate to blame his profession.

“There is a fundamental problem in our media in which we give them bits of information that gives them no basic understanding of a problem,” he says. “They hear there’s something bad in the water here, something wrong in the environment there. A new danger. The crab catch is down, or something in the drinking water in the Missouri River, and the media is no longer concerned with coherence.”

But Smith does devote much of the second half of this program to finding solutions. Perhaps the most hopeful case he found was in Tyson’s Corner, one of the country’s premier office and retail centers, in suburban Virginia outside Washington, D.C.

Asphalt and concrete are America’s leading contributors to storm water runoff, and few places have so much of it as Tyson’s Corner, with its 40 million square feet of parking. For years, local boosters lived in denial. Business was booming and, aside from chronic gridlock, what was the problem?

So when Smith got the head of the Tyson’s Corner Chamber of Commerce to talk on camera about the plan the business community overwhelmingly passed for increasing green space, reducing water runoff and promoting “smarter growth,” it was a sign that things might be changing.

“What they were saying in 1995 and 2000 was the opposite of what they are saying now,” Smith says. “It does suggest that there is somewhere to go and that people who were opposed to this are willing to go there. That’s why I have a glimmer of hope. The film ends on a down note — but it’s only if we do nothing.”

———

MORE EARTH WEEK VIEWING

Other notable programs airing this week are tied to Wednesday’s Earth Day observation:

“EcoTrip: The Real Cost of Living,” also at 9 tonight, Sundance Channel. A new weekly series in which David de Rothschild travels to the places where his chocolate, salmon, cell phones and other daily goods come from and investigates how they could be done more sustainably. Playing the fun-loving ignoramus, de Rothschild engagingly combines travelogue with bite-sized information.

“Life After People,” 10 p.m. tonight on History. The popular special about how the rest of nature might someday get along without us becomes a regular series. (In case your TiVo is tied up tonight, this week’s episode reairs at 9 p.m. Friday.)

———

Aaron Barnhart lives online at TVBarn.com.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/article/73372-poisoned-waters-reveals-dangers-just-beneath-the-surface/