Hedrick Smith calls for activists to engage neighbors

“Don’t walk out of here tonight and say ‘That was an interesting lecture,'” documentary film producer Hedrick Smith told a crowd of environmentalists on April 27 in St. Paul.

Instead, Smith urged his audience to “enlarge our perimeter, increase the size of our congregation” and convince friends and neighbors that America’s lakes and rivers still face significant pollution threats and that political pressure can get something done about the pollution.

Smith, who produced “Poisoned Waters,” a 2009 Public Broadcasting System Frontline documentary about pollution in Chesapeake Bay and Puget Sound, spoke at the University of Minnesota in a lecture series sponsored by the Freshwater Society and the university’s College of Biological Sciences. Smith repeatedly urged his audience to take action in their homes and neighborhoods to fight pollution and

Hedrick Smith and Shawn Schottler

to demand that government respond, as it did in the early 1970s, to clean up contaminated surface waters.

“Those of us who are engaged need to reach out,” Smith said.

About 250 people attended Smith’s lecture, the second in a four-part series that is part of the Freshwater Society’s 2010 – The Year of Water. To read about or view a video of the first lecture by University of Arizona law professor and author Robert Glennon, click here. In his talk, Smith showed segments from “Poisoned Waters,” and talked about the pollution problems that are common to Minnesota and the Mississippi Valley as well as Chesapeake Bay and Puget Sound. To view a video of “Poisoned Waters” or read a transcript of the documentary, click here.

Three Minnesota water experts appeared with Smith and joined him in taking questions from the audience. The three were: Shawn Schottler, a senior scientist at the Science Museum of Minnesota’s St. Croix Watershed Research Station; Kris Sigford, water quality director for the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy; and Glenn Skuta, manager of the watershed section of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency’s regional division.

Smith contrasted the current state of water pollution and the current political climate with the horrific contamination and the public demands for action that led to the first Earth Day in 1970 and helped enact – over President Richard Nixon’s veto – the federal Clean Water Act in 1972.

“The public was outraged, the public was engaged, the public demanded action,” Smith said. And the federal government responded with a string of anti-pollution measures.

“We made really significant progress in the early years, in the ’70s and ’80s,” Smith said. “The slime in the Potomac literally began to recede…The Cuyahoga River stopped bursting into flames. Somewhere, about in the mid-80s, Congress wasn’t interested so much anymore.”

Smith quoted William Ruckelshaus, the first director of the Environmental Protection Agency, who wrote — in a recent Wall Street Journal column — that in 1970 about 85 percent of the pollution was obvious contamination spewing from factories and sewage treatment plants.

Now, after decades of progressively tighter regulation of those sources, about 85 percent of water pollution comes from mostly unregulated pollution from multiple, diffuse sources. Much of today’s pollution comes from farm fields – specifically excluded from regulation by the Clean Water Act – and from storm water washing off streets, sidewalks, parking lots and roofs.

“We need to understand that we are all polluters,” Smith said.

The agricultural pollution is major cause of an enormous, oxygen-deprived “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico.  Storm water runoff sends as much oil and gasoline into Puget Sound every two years as the Exxon Valdez tanker poured into Alaska’s Prince William Sound, Smith said.

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