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Why Do We Treat Our Seas, Lakes and Rivers Like Sewers?

Nobody wants to wallow in somebody else's waste -- or our own, for that matter. So why do we continue to use our valuable freshwater resources as a dumping ground?
 
 
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Frustrated swimming pool owners in thousands of backyards across this country have posted a sign that pleads "We don’t swim in your toilet, so please don’t pee in our pool!"

The message is crude but clear. Nobody wants to wallow in somebody else’s waste -- or our own, for that matter. So why do we treat our seas like sewers? Why do we contaminate our streams, rivers, lakes and oceans with a horrible hodgepodge of chemicals, pesticides, pharmaceuticals, plastic debris and waste?

Evidently, the world’s waterways are a giant toilet into which we can dump anything and everything, and then simply flush it all "away." As if river currents and rolling waves will pull our pollution into some giant cosmic garbage disposal.

Industrial agriculture’s synthetic fertilizers have given us lush green lawns and amber waves of grain. But the run-off from all those yards and farms seeps into our water table and feeds the “red tides”, those toxic algae blooms that cause massive die-offs of aquatic plants and animals.

Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis, the filmmakers who fondly documented their brief stint as Iowa corn farmers in King Corn, explore agribiz’s downstream downside in Big River. In this thirty-minute sequel, Cheney and Ellis revisit their Iowa acre and trace its toxic trail all the way to the Gulf of Mexico.

The film will make its Manhattan debut on March 15th at the Brecht Forum, followed by a panel discussion with Cheney, Ellis, King Corn director Aaron Woolf, Hudson Valley farmer and MacArthur genius Cheryl Rogowski, and Steve Rosenberg of Scenic Hudson.

The screening is a benefit for the Food Systems Network NYC, a non-profit organization whose members (myself included) are dedicated to bringing fresh, wholesome foods to all New Yorkers and supporting our region’s farmers, both urban and rural.

Cheney and Ellis have chosen to go the grassroots route with the release of Big River, organizing screenings across the country in churches, schools, community centers, libraries, boardrooms and so forth. So if you’re not in New York, check out their website to find a screening near you.

Environmentalist Bill McKibben calls the film  "a sharp and clever reminder that nothing ever really goes away, certainly not the soup of chemicals we’re pouring on our fields." And Big River is more timely than ever in the wake of a flood of stories this past week about our nation’s troubled waterways.

When Cheney and Ellis revisit Iowa, they discover that Atrazine, the herbicide they relied on to grow their corn, has tainted the local creek. Just this week, scientists reported that this widely used weed-killer, which has contaminated the tap water of millions of Americans, is "chemically castrating" -- and even feminizing -- male frogs. Their gender is literally reversed to the extent that they can bear eggs.

Atrazine is a known endocrine disrupter and suspected carcinogen. The European Union banned it back in 2004. Researchers in the US have called for a ban here, too, citing studies that have linked it to "human birth defects, low birth weight, prematurity and low sperm count."

Nonetheless, we apply about 80 million pounds of Atrazine annually, and the Environmental Protection Agency has long insisted that it poses no risk. In October of last year, however, the EPA announced that it would "reassess atrazine’s safety, including its cancer risk."

But there’s only so much the EPA can do to defend our waterways, because, as the New York Times reported last week in the latest installment of its superb Toxic Water series, the Clean Water Act doesn’t give the EPA the authority to pursue some of the biggest offenders:

Thousands of the nation’s largest water polluters are outside the Clean Water Act’s reach because the Supreme Court has left uncertain which waterways are protected by that law.

The result?:

Some businesses are declaring that the law no longer applies to them. And pollution rates are rising.

Companies that have spilled oil, carcinogens and dangerous bacteria into lakes, rivers and other waters are not being prosecuted, according to Environmental Protection Agency regulators working on those cases, who estimate that more than 1,500 major pollution investigations have been discontinued or shelved in the last four years.

Some members of Congress are trying to remedy this egregious state of affairs through a piece of legislation called the Clean Water Restoration Act, but as the Times reported:

…a broad coalition of industries has often successfully lobbied to prevent the full Congress from voting on such proposals by telling farmers and small-business owners that the new legislation would permit the government to regulate rain puddles and small ponds and layer new regulations on how they dispose of waste.

Glenn Beck is warning that passage of the Clean Water Restoration Act will result in the government regulating virtually every body of water larger than your birdbath. This could conceivably include the puddles of crocodile tears that Beck routinely weeps, and maybe even the pools of drool that accompanied his ick-inducing interview with Sarah Palin.

Allowing the EPA to prevent industries from polluting our waterways is just bad for business, according to Beck. Never mind that letting manufacturers dump toxins into our waters is bad for us. For wingnut pundits whose populist veneer is thinner than the chocolate shell on an M & M, the concerns of common citizens must never be allowed to trump the needs of commerce.

It’s a view evidently shared by mega developers the Toll Brothers, who withdrew from a proposed project along the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn last Tuesday after the EPA finally declared the famously fouled Gowanus a Superfund site.

Thanks to "years of discharges, storm water runoff, sewer outflows and industrial pollutants, the Gowanus Canal has become one of the nation’s most extensively contaminated water bodies," the EPA declared.

The Toll Brothers had grand plans to build 450 housing units and 2,000 square feet of retail space there. "We’re extremely disappointed in the EPA’s decision," David Von Spreckelsen, a Toll senior vice president, told the Wall Street Journal. "It’s going to have a big impact on the properties along the canal…It’s unlikely you are going to see development there for many, many, many, many years."

Admittedly, this news is a colossal disappointment for all those would-be home buyers who longed to live by a canal whose signature stench betrays its industrial past: a heady blend of "cement, oil, mercury, lead, PCBs, coal tar, and other contaminants."

But as the New York Times reported last year, "Studies have shown that property values decline after a Superfund listing but rebound after the cleanup, sometimes to far higher levels."

Given the choice, most folks prefer their creeks and canals to be contaminant-free. Sadly, too many communities haven’t got a choice. They’re up a rancid river without a paddle, while Glenn Beck piddles on the truth and peddles his twaddle about puddles.

Big River Trailer from Wicked Delicate Films on Vimeo.

Kerry Trueman is the co-founder of EatingLiberally.org. You can follow her on Twitter.
 
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