'Poisoned Waters" producer Hedrick Smith to speak April 27

Hedrick Smith, who produced “Poisoned Waters,” an acclaimed television documentary on pollution in Chesapeake Bay and Puget Sound, will speak April 27 in St. Paul about the serious contamination that still afflicts U.S. waters, nearly 40 years after passage of the Clean Water Act.

Hedrick Smith

Smith’s lecture is sponsored by the Freshwater Society and the University of Minnesota College of Biological Sciences.

In “Poisoned Waters,” broadcast last year on the PBS Frontline program, Smith focused on the pollutants that flow from multiple, diffuse sources into Chesapeake Bay on the East Coast and Puget Sound on the West Coast. In his lecture at the university, Smith will show video excerpts from the documentary and discuss how the same kinds of pollution affect Minnesota and the Mississippi River.

The lecture, part of the Freshwater Society’s 2010-The Year of Water, will be at 7 p.m. on the 27th in the St. Paul Student Center theater. The lecture is free and open to the public, but seating is limited and registration is required. To register, go to www.freshwater.org.

In an interview, Smith, a Pulitzer Prize- and Emmy-winning reporter and producer, said that he, like many people, had supposed until about a decade ago that the Clean Water Act was working, that U.S. lakes, rivers and estuaries were getting cleaner every year.

“I sort of had tuned out,” he said. “I thought things were in pretty good shape and getting better.”

Then, Smith said he began to see some very personal evidence that part of the pollution was getting worse, not better.

“I noticed the crab pots at the end of our dock were coming in with fewer and fewer crabs every year,” said Smith, who lived at the time on Maryland’s Magothy River, which flows into Chesapeake Bay.

Smith, an avid sailor, also had a conversation about the bay’s water quality with a sailing friend, the late Philip Merrill, the publisher of several Maryland newspapers. “He and I got talking,” Smith recalled recently, “and he said ‘This is so much worse than you think it is.'”

As a New York Times reporter in the 1970s, Smith was part of a Times team that won a Pulitzer for reporting on the Pentagon Papers, a classified government history of the Vietnam War. Later, he  won a Pulitzer for his reporting from Russia and Eastern Europe.

After turning to television documentaries, he produced reports on a range of topics that included: terrorism, Soviet perestroika, the global economy, Wal-Mart, Enron, tax evasion, health care and jazz greats Duke Ellington and Dave Brubeck.

Smith, who has a home on Orcas Island in Puget Sound, north of Seattle, said he began preliminary work on “Poisoned Waters” in 2006. As he learned more about the pollution tainting both the sound and Chesapeake Bay, he became more committed to exposing the legislative and regulatory lapses that allowed the pollution to continue.

“The reporting just really opened my eyes and turned me around,” he said.

Hedrick Smith, right, with Brad Hanson, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
scientist, on a whale survey in Puget Sound.

“Poisoned Waters” recounts  the successes that environmental regulators achieved over the past four decades in forcing some big industries and public wastewater treatment plants to dramatically reduce the contaminants they poured into Chesapeake Bay and the rivers flowing into the bay. But the documentary also depicts the environmental damage – huge declines in the bay’s production of crabs and oysters and big oxygen-deprived “dead zones” in the bay – caused by mostly unregulated pollution from massive chicken farms and other sources.

The documentary also recounts scientific evidence that chemical compounds – so-called endocrine-disruptors – in the water of the Potomac and other rivers flowing into the bay are routinely causing male fish to develop female characteristics.

In the portion of “Poisoned Waters” devoted to Puget Sound’s pollution, Smith documented the lingering damage of  “legacy pollutants,” such as PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, that have not been used by industry in decades but that persist in the sediment of water bodies where the chemicals once were discharged.

The documentary also examined the pollution caused by storm water runoff carrying all kinds of contaminants into surface waters. And the documentary explored the suburban development – streets, sidewalks, driveways and roofs — that increase that runoff.

“We’re all polluters,” Smith said.. “It was easier when the problem was them, the big guys.”

Smith said the reporting he did for “Poisoned Waters” left him convinced that the pollution problem is worse than he had believed, but also somewhat encouraged that individual Americans are beginning to be aware of the pollution and beginning to demand action to cure it.

“I think people realize that their health is at risk, that their children’s health is at risk,” he said. “A lot of people who didn’t care as much will care more.”

He said he also is optimistic that the federal government is acting more aggressively to fight pollution. “I think I’m encouraged by the initial steps taken by Lisa Jackson of the EPA and the Obama administration,” he said.