Source: FRONTLINE Poisoned Waters
FRONTLINE Poisoned Waters
For more resources from this report go to FRONTLINE Poisoned Waters.
More than three decades after the Clean Water Act, iconic American waterways like the Chesapeake Bay and Puget Sound are in perilous condition and facing new sources of contamination. In this special collection of educational resources from FRONTLINE Poisoned Waters, correspondent Hedrick Smith investigates the growing hazards to our waterways and emerging threats to human health.
Poisoned Waters Discussion Guide (Document)
What Is the Biggest Polluter of Water?
Flying in a four-seat Cessna over the Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake Bay, Rick Dove sees a world unknown to most: mound upon mound of chicken manure. Dove, a pollution detective for the Waterkeeper Alliance, is keeping close tabs on those mounds out in the open, because when it rains, that manure has one place to go - downstream into the Bay that he’s trying to protect.
The Chesapeake’s Eastern Shore is the site of massive industrial agriculture. It produces more than 570 million chickens a year which create 1.5 billion pounds of waste, more than the human waste from the cities of New York, Washington, San Francisco and Atlanta combined. “Agriculture is by far the largest source of pollution to the Chesapeake Bay and it is arguably the single biggest source of pollution to all the waters in the country,” says Chuck Fox, the EPA’s senior advisor on Chesapeake Bay.
While the Clean Water Act targeted pollution coming out of a pipe from city sewage and industrial plants, waste flowing off of farmland was left largely unregulated. Unlike industry, no specific pollution discharge limits were set. “The whole agricultural community has remained maybe the last big unregulated area of water pollution,” says Tom Horton, author of several books on Chesapeake Bay. With the deregulation movement of the 1980s, the EPA and the rivershed states tried to combat farm pollution through voluntary programs - a solution that farmers advocated but environmentalists said lacked the teeth of enforcement.
What makes the problem acute is the concentration of agriculture waste. Tens of thousands of chickens are raised on one large shed; millions on one family farm. In Pennsylvania, cows per farm increased five-fold between 1954 and 1997. Nationwide, industrial agriculture now produces more than three times the raw waste of humans.
With falling meat prices and Americans’ insatiable protein-rich appetite (we now consume three-times as much poultry as in the 1950s), pollution from animal waste has become a formidable problem. Explains Jim Perdue, CEO of Perdue Farms: “Things had to become bigger in order to keep costs lower.”
But leading activists like Robert Kennedy Jr., chair of the Waterkeeper Alliance, say that companies like Perdue and Tysons are not paying their true costs of production. Kennedy argues that they have dumped the cost burden of cleaning up animal waste on taxpayers.
So activists like Dove and Kennedy are attempting to force a clean up through a provision in the Clean Water Act that allows citizens to sue polluters and the government. In 2003 and 2008, Waterkeeper Alliance filed suit against the EPA and Maryland, to try to toughen regulatory oversight. Lately, under President Obama, the EPA has begun to require pollution discharge permits for the large poultry farms.
Background Essay Written by Hedrick Smith.
Poisoned Waters explores why American waterways like the Chesapeake Bay and the Puget Sound are in peril. After watching the video chapter on ‘big polluters,’ discuss your answers to the following questions:
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