Wow, who knew that the Environmental Protection Agency is in the
business of protecting the environment? That's due in no small part to Obama's installation of the agency's new administrator, Lisa Jackson (above).
She received standing ovations two Thursdays ago at a National Press Club event touting a two-hour Frontline documentary Poisoned Waters, which explores pollution in the Chesapeake Bay and Puget Sound. She
seems like a down to earth straight talker, mentioning offhand how her
mother lost a New Orleans home to Hurricane Katrina.
What's killing U.S. waterways? Farms and storms, to oversimplify it. Industrial agriculture washes pesticides into waterways, spawning six-legged
frogs and fish with freakish man-eggs. Rain rinses the
toxicants of the built environment off the sides of
buildings on down into sewage systems and into the ground, contaminating interconnected streams, rivers, lakes, ponds, oceans.
Poisons are ubiquitous in consumer products, so who's to blame? All of us, not just the bad practices of big businesses, most of whom have
long been bound by EPA restrictions. How can we improve stewardship
enough to clean up our habits and our water? Frontline producer Hendrick Smith wondered if it's possible to regulate the mass use of industrial poisons in a democracy.
"Pollutants are still responsible for pollution," Jackson said, insisting that the EPA needs
a law to help determine whether local folks or feds are responsible for
particular waterways, which cross jurisdictions. Assigning
responsibility for cleanup in any case eats 40 to 60 percent of the
agency's time, she said. (Good luck. "There should be a law," often draws applause
in this town.)
Improving the health of water resources is "only gonna happen if people believe the way they act and
behave is integral to the preservation of the rest of life and with
other living things," said Bill Ruckelshaus (below), in 1970 the first EPA head. A cultural shift must accompany any lasting political solutions, he added.
Ruckelshaus noted that there's already been a cultural shift since Nixonvetoed the Clean Water Act, which Congress then protected. He touted how the EPA has cleaned up the air, such as by ending the burning of soft coal for heat in major cities. "We had the people of Denver who wanted to see mountains again, and the people of Los Angeles who wanted to see one another," he said. "It's not as though we haven't done anything."
It's been more than 5 years since I was in D.C., and the mood on the street is palpably different. Despite our great recession, ordinary folks like cab drivers and hot dog vendors flanking the Smithsonian museums seem peppier than at the height of the G.W. Bush era. Maybe it's just springtime, which often feels tulip-tinted, but I'm not alone in this observation. A Bloomberg reporter I met at a wine bar said it's like Bambi has arrived in town, with birds alighting on the shoulders of so many regular D.C. residents.
This is the southwestern Michigan beach that feels like home more than anywhere. There last weekend, for the first time I noticed a thin line of plastic trash where the lake meets the shore. Up and down, as far as you can see, left to right, were bottle caps, shredded bags, broken-up styrofoam and countless nurdles, which are white pellets used in plastic manufacturing. There were no perished birds or fish this time. I haven't seen crayfish creeping from under the sand since early grammar school, but I did find fossils. I've read and written about plastic waste in waterways, but seeing the contamination in a place I love was especially saddening.
Several years ago, the family that used to own my family's cottage stopped by. In the 1950s, the ladies would hike down to the beach to collect fresh water for coffee. They caught the water from a stream that ran from the gray mud clay cliffs into the lake. When I was wee, Tracy and I named that stream Ladybug Land and built the insects shelters of rocks decorated in nail polish. I would slather my body in the mud, a naturally luxuriant skin treatment and sunscreen. Above the bluffs were 80 acres of woods. In the mid-80s, most of the trees fell for the sake of multimillion dollar lakefront properties. The homeowners above the clay cliffs and stream destroyed both with terraced landscaping.