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 Nixon vetoed 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.