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.


From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

Next Page
Related Articles Around the Web

Subverting the Romcom: Mercedes Grower on Creating 'Brakes'

Noel Fielding (Daniel) and Mercedes Grower (Layla) (courtesy Bulldog Film Distribution)

Brakes plunges straight into the brutal and absurd endings of the relationships of nine couples before travelling back in time to discover the moments of those first sparks of love.

The improvised dark comedy Brakes (2017), a self-described "anti-romcom", is the debut feature of comedienne and writer, director and actress Mercedes Grower. Awarded production completion funding from the BFI Film Fund, Grower now finds herself looking to the future as she develops her second feature film, alongside working with Laura Michalchyshyn from Sundance TV and Wren Arthur from Olive productions on her sitcom, Sailor.

Keep reading... Show less

People aren't cheering Supergirl on here. They're not thanking her for her heroism, or even stopping to take a selfie.

It's rare for any hero who isn't Superman to gain the kind of credibility that grants them the implicitly, unflinching trust of the public. In fact, even Superman struggles to maintain that credibility and he's Superman. If the ultimate paragon of heroes struggles with maintaining the trust of the public, then what hope does any hero have?

Keep reading... Show less

The Paraguay-born, Brooklyn-based indie pop artist MAJO wraps brand new holiday music for us to enjoy in a bow.

It's that time of year yet again, and with Christmastime comes Christmas tunes. Amongst the countless new covers of holiday classics that will be flooding streaming apps throughout the season from some of our favorite artists, it's always especially heartening to see some original writing flowing in. Such is the gift that Paraguay-born, Brooklyn-based indie pop songwriter MAJO is bringing us this year.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.