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‘Frontline’ offers facts about America’s ‘Poisoned Waters’

Aaron Barnhart McClatchy

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 Tuesday night on PBS stations nationwide.

Drawing on interviews with scientists, fishermen, bureaucrats, chicken farmers, whale watchers and others 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.

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: the weirdly mutated frogs with six legs and intersexed fish (males carrying eggs). The drinking water loaded with contaminants, two-thirds of which are so new they elude modern filtration methods. The fish going to market laden with chemicals.

“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 an underwater factory drainage pipe spewing nasty-looking filth 24/7.

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.

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,” he says. “Seventy-three percent of the knowledgeable people think Puget Sound is in terrible shape.”

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 Environmental Protection Agency 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.”

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