Environment

Mark Ruffalo and Scott Smith Boldly Fight for Clean Water

The actor/activist and Water Defense's chief scientist discuss the importance of testing in protecting our most valuable resource.

Photo Credit: Kelly Higa/Creative Commons (left), Water Defense (right)

Mark Ruffalo is not just an actor who gives his name to causes. He has been a hands-on activist and spokesperson for the environmental movement, and in recent years, his fight against fracking — especially in the northeast’s Delaware River Basin — has drawn national attention to the issue.

In 2010, Ruffalo founded Water Defense, a direct-action environmental organization that provides water testing and evidence gathering equipment to document the contamination of water supplies for local communities and other concerned parties. After founding Water Defense, Ruffalo later appointed environmental scientist and inventor Scott Smith as the organization’s chief scientist. Smith had previously invented a technology used in water testing which is now employed by Water Defense.

The duo have been generating a lot of news lately, testing water samples at fossil-fuel and chemical spill sites and in other regions where water quality and its health impacts are in question.

As Ruffalo was in Europe on a movie set and Smith was stateside making scheduling difficult, AlterNet interviewed them in tandem over email about the organization’s unique, direct-action mission to protect our water.

Cliff Weathers: There have been several incidences of crude oil, coal ash and chemical spills in our rivers and aquifers just in the past several months. Is clean water something we can no longer rely upon?

Mark Ruffalo and Scott Smith: We have a serious problem on our hands and we must remember that people spill oil and chemicals not corporations. The energy corporations are simply meeting the demands of the people in our society.  Our water is the victim of too many years of living in carefree society which includes our aging infrastructure, an ever increasing thirst for cheap energy,  and is compounded by consumers that are willing to sacrifice environment and health and safety.

Unfortunately, we cannot rely on clean water until the protocols for monitoring, diagnosing and removing pollution from water is modernized. Knowing what is actually in the water means we can then customize solutions to remove and eliminate the source of contamination, whether it be inorganics (metals), semi-volatile chemicals, and volatile chemicals.

CW: Water Defense has a unique, proactive approach to protecting the environment. Can you explain how the organization benefits individuals and communities? 

MR&SS: The education process begins with the real world laboratory with the data generated from our visits to over 45 disasters and contamination sites since the Deepwater Horizon BP Gulf of Mexico oil spill in 2010. Once communities become aware of the true state of their water based on proven, scientific data, most often they want to become part of the solution. We then arm them with the tools needed to clean up the water in their community and influence protocols on a broader scale.  ]

Water Defense is unique in that our laboratory is the real world. We go into a community, listen to their concerns and help them diagnose and then solve the specific water contamination problems caused by incidents such as a pipeline breaks, oil train explosions, or everyday oil and chemical spills caused by people.

CW: Who can apply to get their water monitored?

MR&SS: With our open source approach along with the support we receive from foundations and other benefactors, anyone can get their water monitored in a cost-effective way. For example, conventional water testing that is neither cumulative (measures exposure over time) nor complete (does not measure the full gamut of inorganic metals, SVOC's, and VOC’c) costs in excess of $5,000 per test. Water Defense can deliver complete and cumulative testing for less than $2,000 per test. 

CW: What contamination sites has Water Defense monitored?

MR&SS: Scott has responded to every oil disaster in the past decade to conduct cumulative water testing. Most recently, Water Defense has been influential in educating and influencing communities affected by water pollution including Mayflower, AR, New Bedford, MA, Eden, NC, Charleston, WV, Galveston, TX, Casselton, ND, Lynchburg, VA, Cape Cod, Brooklyn, NY, Cincinnati, OH, and Aliceville, AL to name a few.

CW: After the organization tests water and documents contamination in communities, how is that data shared?

MR&SS When it is in the public’s best interest, test results are made available publicly via the Water Defense website and/or a concerned media outlet. If the testing is done on behalf of a third party, such as an affected individual or a local foundation, we provide the results directly to those individuals to use as needed.

CW: Do you have a theory as to why we are seeing a spate of water accidents in recent months?  

MR&SS: It is actually quite simple.  We have an energy infrastructure that is based on 200,000 miles of pipelines that have an average age of 40-50 years, along with rail cars and railroad tracks not designed to handle the volume or the new oils that contain dangerous chemicals, unprecedented amounts of dissolved and explosive gases, and unprecedented mixtures of flammable / explosive volatile compounds.  

This is not Beverly Hillbillies/Jed Clampett conventional and simple non-explosive/corrosive oil anymore.    

CW: When you think of Cape Cod, you don't often think of water contamination, but Water Defense has focused on water quality issues there. Why is that?  

MR&SS: Cape Cod is a microcosm of the water challenges we will increasingly faces as a result of every increasing population density combined with lack of infrastructure to support clean water. For example, the population density of Cape Cod for most of the year approaches that of France of Germany with an inadequate infrastructure to deal with the human generated waste and this is creating problems with 1,4 dioxane and phosphorous contamination to start. Mother Nature is telling us via cyanobacteria (blue-green algae), which generate dangerous neurotoxins (which cause serious health problems in humans and animals and often cause death), that we need to get our act together soon.

If we can raise awareness of the issues Cape Cod is experiencing and bring people together to solve the problem, we can then apply what we learn on a much broader scale to better filter and protect our water throughout the World.

CW: Should we assume that all areas that are heavily industrialized or are near sources for fossil-fuel energy extraction are now "sacrifice zones?" And how can people who live near such sites help prevent the same types of disasters that we've recently seen?  

MR&SS: From our work on the ground and in the scientific community, we are very optimistic that the problems can be solved and do not believe in any “sacrifice zones.”

We offer hope by first truly diagnosing the water contamination problems in the real world and then solving the problems. Industrialized areas are the result of people in today’s society demanding cheap energy without state of the art infrastructure and the results compromise our clean water.  We can and will solve this by educating the next generation and arming them with the solutions via the best available technology.

CW: Is there one contamination threat that is more immediately menacing to our water supplies?  

MR&SS: Yes, as we mentioned previously the threat is the cyanobacteria that gives off neurotoxins and is the result of people not paying attention and allowing contaminants from everyday living to compromise our water. If these bacteria were to mutate and spread, we could end up in a real-life Stephen King movie with resistant bacteria that kills humans and animals.  

Cliff Weathers is a former deputy editor of Consumer Reports who also served as a senior editor at AlterNet. He was one of the first journalists to sound the alarm over the extreme dangers of fracking and the shipping volatile Bakken crude oil by rail. His articles on technology, green cars, alternative energy, water and sustainability have appeared in several publications, including Car and Driver, Playboy, Salon and Raw Story. Twitter: @cliffweathers.