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Frontline: Poisoned Waters

Poisoned Waters makes the case that loss of clean water results from lagging efforts by government agencies, corporations, and individuals.


Airtime: Tuesday, 9pm ET
Cast: Hedrick Smith, Tom Horton, Robert Lawrence, Jay Manning, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., William Ruckelshaus, Jim Perdue, Carole Morison
MPAA rating: N/A
Subtitle: Poisoned Waters
Network: PBS
US release date: 2009-04-21
We are all polluters. I am; you are; all of us are.

-- Jay Manning, Director, Washington Department of Ecology

Looking out on the Chesapeake Bay, longtime commercial fisherman Larry Simns looks tired. For three decades, he's headed out each morning, buoyed by the serenity and seeming endless bounty of the waters. Now he tells reporter Hedrick Smith, he sees an end. "I never ever dreamed I wouldn't be catching shad anymore," he says.

Simns' sense of loss is palpable in Poisoned Waters, premiering tonight on PBS. Focused on the effects of pollution on the Chesapeake Bay and Washington State's Puget Sound, the two-hour special episode of Frontline makes the case that such loss results from lagging efforts by government agencies, corporations, and individuals. The problems manifested in these locations are certainly not unique, Smith submits. Indeed, they are worldwide. But these U.S. instances are particularly galling, as they reveal the consequences of political and economic decisions.

Four decades ago, the future didn't look this way. Back then, a series of ecological disasters made clear the costs of inaction: as Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. of Waterkeeper Alliance recalls, the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill and the conspicuous contamination of Lake Eerie, among other disasters, spurred U.S. citizens to action. Demonstrations -- including the first instance of Earth Day in 1970, during which 20 million people protested unchecked pollution (the "largest demonstration in American history," notes Kennedy) -- occasioned official responses, such as the creation of the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency). Though President Nixon argued against the legislation, remembers William Ruckelshaus, EPA Administrator from 1970-1973, Congress overrode his veto and set in motion a number of efforts to clean up the environment. The Clean Water Act of 1972, for example, set up regulations for waste management and authorized states to set standards for water quality.

Ruckelshaus recalls banning DDT, and suing cities and targeting "some big visible polluters" (such as U.S. Steel, especially upset at his efforts). While such work was initially fruitful, instituting clear laws, penalties, and inspections in order to reduce pollution levels (especially in the area of sewage treatment) and establish standards for the future, by the 1980s, the Reagan administration set about deregulating industries. In his mission to reduce "government," Reagan "essentially gutted the EPA," appointing people to run it who were, according to J. Charles Fox, EPA Assistant Administrator from 1998-2001, "opposed to the mission of the agency."

The results were profound.

As Poisoned Waters details through interviews with scientist, activists, and corporate executives like Jim Perdue of Perdue Chicken, deregulation allowed polluters to pursue profits at all costs. The chicken industry is an especially egregious example. As chicken grower Carole Morison observes, the system is designed so that individual growers do not own the chickens (which are delivered by Perdue, then picked up for processing once they are "grown"), but remain responsible for the chickens' waste, which is particularly noxious. Where Perdue insists that "capitalism in general stimulates efficiency... things had to become bigger in order to keep prices lower," Morison indicates that it also allows increasingly large conglomerates to dictate terms. Each year's contract arrives without chance of negotiation, she says. It is "designed by the company: you either sign it and get chickens or not sign and not get chickens and ultimately lose the farm."

She has decided, she tells Smith, to get out of the business. Though Perdue counters her description of the unbalanced relationship between farmers and company. "The manure is considered a resource," he says, which means the individual farmers make their own choices concerning its disposal, such that "The question is, what use is being made from it?" While Smith's reporting shows that most all of it becomes pollution, the Delmarva poultry industry "contends there's a fundamental difference between industrial sewage and poultry waste," and that the latter need not be regulated. Smith's camera crew reveals visible sources of pollution, yet industry spokesman Bill Satterfield rejects the obvious conclusion. Oh no, he says, the contamination may be coming from foxes or deer. Smith doesnÕt buy it.

Poisoned Waters also looks at Puget Sound, especially it frames the contentious relations between Boeing and the city of Seattle, arguing over who exactly is responsible for the PCBs flowing through municipal flumes. Former marine Shawn Blocker, currently the EPA's site manager for Boeing, submits that the company is doing as little as possible to correct pollution, prolonging tests and conducting interim cleanups rather than overhauling its waste management system.

Such delays only allow continuing damage to the area, producing what scuba diver Mike Racine calls "a brown, noxious soup of nastiness that is unbelievable" (this is illustrated in his underwater footage). Similarly, legal arguments in the Washington DC area over who's responsible for contaminants in the water system only put off action. As Smith puts it, a crucial question remains unanswered amid such wrangling: "How clean do we expect our waterways to be?" Here, Tysons Corner serves as "a case study in the harmful impact of unchecked growth." The shopping area's expansion -- its extraordinary "sprawl" -- over 60 years has produced a "nightmare for the Potomac River and Chesapeake Bay," in the form of "impervious surfaces." These are paved surfaces, premised on consumers' dependence on their cars, which make it impossible for storm and rainwater to seep into the ground, and instead allow such waters to carry and distribute toxic substances over long distances.

The show ends with a counter-example, an "ecofriendly development model" in Arlington called Smart Growth. Here the foundation of commerce and social activity is mass transit, reducing "impervious surfaces." As Tysons developers consider the coming of a Metro stop, with the potential to reshape the area's dependence on cars, Smith insists that despite bad decisions in the past, the future is still in process. "We do have choices to make," he says, "And time is much more urgent and the stakes are higher than I had once realized." Poisoned Waters makes that case all too apparent.


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