poisoned waters

J. Charles Fox

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Fox served as associate EPA administrator from 1998 to 2001, and ran the Maryland Department of Natural Resources from 2001 to 2003. In March 2009, Fox became senior adviser to the EPA's Chesapeake Bay cleanup program. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on June 4, 2008.

“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 of the waters in the country.”

Take me back to the early years of the environmental movement, 1970 Earth Day, Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act, Safe Drinking Water Act. Why was there such a thrust on environmentalism?

The conservation movement in the United States really goes back even to the 1930s and '40s. The movement at that time was all about preserving places and landscapes. We had the birth of national parks and national forests. ...

In the 1970s, there was a wakening ... of pollution control problems in the United States. We had the Santa Barbara oil spill that occurred in the late 1960s. We had some rivers catching on fire in the mainstream of the United States, in Ohio. ... Rachel Carson wrote her book Silent Spring about the problems of pesticides in the 1960s.

And so around 1970, we had a country that was becoming more aware of the problems of pollution in their everyday lives. This was about the health of their children and the food that they were getting. It was about the beaches that they wanted to go and visit, and they didn't want them covered in oil pollution. And it was about the air that they were breathing and an understanding that America's air was in fact getting seriously polluted.

... Was there a sense of urgency? Outrage? Was the public engaged? ...

... Back in the 1970s, we had problems of air pollution in some small parts of the country. We had emerging threats of pesticides. We had things like DDT and lead in gasoline, and it was being connected to public health problems.

But I don't think we had quite the broad-scale sense of urgency that we do have today in our country, because of the issues of climate change, the ozone layer and problems of our drinking water and even our food safety. Today I think there is a much broader and deeper sense of the problems that we have facing the environment. ...

... What kind of a report card would you give American environmental protections over the last 30, 35 years?

... We have done a very good job of controlling the major sewage pollution from cities like New York, Chicago or Los Angeles, but we still haven't done enough to actually restore the ecological integrity of our nation's waters.

So what we know today is that cleaning up places like Chesapeake Bay, the Great Lakes, Puget Sound, the Gulf of Mexico in fact requires a whole host of actions that isn't just about controlling the most obvious sources of pollution. And so here we are today, 30, 40 years after the birth of modern water pollution control, and I can tell you that the overall quality of waters in our country is really not all that different than it was 30 or 40 years ago.

I testified in the year 2000 that in fact roughly 40 percent of the waters in the United States did not meet our goals for fishing and swimming. While we do not have the data going back in time, I would roughly estimate that that number has been virtually unchanged for 30 years.

The Clean Water Act set a deadline to make the nation's water swimmable, fishable and drinkable ... as of 1985, and here we are in 2009 and we're not there. Was the Clean Water Act not clear enough? Were there not punitive or regulatory standards that could be enforced?

The Clean Water Act set in place a very basic framework for managing water pollution in our country, and there's no question that it has some shortcomings and that there are parts of the Clean Water Act that I believe need to be further strengthened. For example, agricultural pollution generally is not covered in the same way as other sources of pollution are under the Clean Water Act.

Having said that, though, the real problem with the Clean Water Act has been that it has not been implemented in a manner that in fact is being responsive to the ultimate water-quality challenges we have in this country. ...

The Clean Air Act has been very good at looking at the full range of pollution sources to the air, getting down to the level not just of automobiles but getting down to the level of paint cans and in some cases barbecue grills and dry cleaners, fast-food establishments. The full range of activities that can impact air pollution are today controlled under the Clean Air Act.

There is not a similar structure under the Clean Water Act. The law itself allows this to happen, but as a practical matter, over the last 20, 30 years in particular, state and federal regulating agencies have not actually approached the challenge in the same way as they've done under the Clean Air Act. ...

So the act was vaguer, or the implementation of the act was ineffective?

I believe the implementation of the act has been ineffective. ... I think the real challenge going forward is that our governments at both state and federal levels need to be much more explicit about the framework under which we are going to control pollution from a wide variety of sources. ...

Why hasn't the act been implemented? Is it lack of political will? Is it money? Is it politics?

I think there's a large number of factors that have ultimately contributed to our failures under the Clean Water Act. At some basic level, the economic benefits analysis that is often done by government agencies, the math doesn't always add up as good for water control as it does for air pollution control. This is a simple result of the fact that bad air results in an increase in hospital admissions and very clear increases in premature deaths, lung disease and some other public health problems. We don't have some of those economic drivers on the water side, although there certainly are some of them. ...

But there's also a clear lack of political will. There's no question in my mind that the single biggest source of water pollution in this country is a very far range of agricultural activities. ... Agriculture dominates our landscape in this country, and we have not yet done a very good job of controlling pollution from agricultural sources.

... Are there indicators that say we should be concerned [about health effects], even if there hasn't been a crisis or an epidemic?

Absolutely. ... The unfortunate reality is that people get sick from contact with water every single day, and we have information suggesting that that problem is getting worse today than it was 10 years ago. To what extent this is because we have more pollution or better monitoring we still don't know, but we have more beach closures today throughout the country than we had 10 years ago. And this is a result of a number of different contaminants being in the water that ultimately can make people sick.

Now, the way this makes people sick is traditionally through earaches, stomachaches; you might have cases of diarrhea. These are not necessarily the kind of health impacts that would rise to the level of cancer-causing impacts that might affect on the Clean Air Act side of things. And so, for various reasons, these public health impacts -- which are very real to families and communities -- have never really gotten the same level of attention, in my opinion, as many on the Clean Air Act's side because we are by and large not talking about cancer-causing endpoints.

Having said that, there are in fact some cancer-causing endpoints in water quality that I think are of growing concern to communities -- certainly the question of contaminants in fish. Fish consumption in this country is growing, as it should be. It's a very healthy source of protein, but at the same time, a number of wild-caught fish in fact do have levels of contaminants that cause public health scientists to be concerned.

Mercury is certainly one contaminant at very high levels in many of the fish found throughout the United States. In fact, there are widespread fish advisories for eating fish because of mercury throughout the United States, particularly in the Northeast United States. But there are other contaminants. … PCB is something that was used in the manufacturing of electrical equipment and transformers. DDT is even in some of our fish still today. Many of these chemicals are no longer even in production but in fact are still in the food chain, and it's still going to take many, many years for them to come out of the food chain.

Do you eat Chesapeake Bay fish, or do you steer clear of it?

We personally eat a lot of fish in our family, but I must admit, we tend to focus on farm-raised catfish as our primary source of fish protein. It has less to do actually with the toxic contamination in it and most to do with what we believe is part of a sustainable diet in our household.

Talk for a moment about the Potomac River. The river was declared to be a national disgrace by Lyndon Johnson. ... How bad was the Potomac River at its worst, and why does it look so much better today? Is that a success story?

The Potomac River in many ways is a microcosm for our country. It's an amazing river. It goes up to the mountains of Appalachia. It comes past our nation's capital. It goes through great falls and wonderful waterfalls, and then it enters the estuary of the Chesapeake Bay. The Potomac itself is an estuary. It's a river that is in fact defined by a whole range of threats -- from the agriculture in its headwaters to the major urban areas, like the Washington metropolitan area, as well as a whole range of other environmental threats from habitat loss.

What we saw in the Potomac River in the 1960s was what was seen in many rivers around the country, where it smelled so bad you didn't want to get anywhere near it. That odor was in large part created by poorly treated sewage. ... Today many parts of the river are open to swimming, and in many ways, it is a tremendous success story. We have seen development in Washington, D.C., along the Potomac River in what we call Georgetown that wouldn't have happened had the river smelled the way it did in the 1960s. ...

But having said that, the Potomac River today still suffers tremendously and is nowhere near back to the health that it was certainly even 100 years ago, and this relates in large part to many of the challenges related to agriculture and the problems of the dead zones in the Chesapeake, as well as dead zones in other parts of the country. ...

Interestingly, the Potomac has also become a microcosm for some of these new potential threats that we are seeing. In fact, there's been some government research in the headwaters of the Potomac about hormone-mimicking pollutants and, in fact, their effects on fish populations and whether or not fish are capable of reproducing; whether, in fact, some fish take on characteristics of both male and female fish. Many scientists today attribute this to pollution that we didn't even focus on 20 to 30 years ago, pollution that is also in our wastewater, pollution that might come from prescription drugs. It might come from birth control pills, other sources of chemicals that get into our wastewater that then go through these wastewater treatment plants untreated and into our streams.

... How seriously do you take the findings of scientists like Vicki Blazer [of the U.S. Geological Survey], as warnings that there are potentially dangerous chemical compounds in the water that's being used as the source of drinking water for Northern Virginia suburbs, Washington D.C., parts of Montgomery County, Md.?

I take it very seriously. ... Scientists today are the ones that in fact are leading the way in helping to inform policy-makers about how can they best deal with some of these challenges that we face. ... For example, scientists are now looking at whether or not some of the sewage treatment plant technologies that we are using today to control nitrogen and phosphorus can be modified ever so slightly to control some of these hormone-mimicking chemicals and compounds. The initial return is that it is very promising; that, in fact, we might be in a situation with relatively low cost where we can in fact control some of these chemicals from the major sewage treatment plants throughout the Chesapeake Bay watershed. ...

Can science keep up with industry? ...

History would suggest, so far, science cannot keep up with the chemicals that are being manufactured. There are tens of thousands of chemicals that are used in various parts of our society today. There's no question we don't have the beginnings of understanding of all of their implications for our health, much less the environment. And this is changing with nanotechnology day by day. ...

Is there enough money going into the science? ...

There's no question that that's a challenge. … In my mind, the burden does rely on those that are producing the chemicals to really have an understanding of the full range of their implications. …

Do I imagine that the designer of the birth control pill actually thought through, well, what would be the ultimate impacts of very minute concentrations of some of these chemicals as they go through the wastewater stream and ultimately might impact fish or shellfish or reptiles in the environment? I don't think that was part of their analysis.

Today we know that that has to be part of the analysis, because ultimately, these chemicals find a way downstream into our waters, and we do need to understand their implications, not just for the ecosystem, but ultimately for our health.

What about human beings? … Do we have any notion of the implications of our actions on the water systems that we ultimately depend on? ...

It is so true. There are no easy ways to help people understand this. At my house, we end up keeping a very large bag of batteries that we use for recycling because we know that if we put these in the garbage, they might end up in an incinerator, and then these batteries get incinerated, and that pollution from those batteries goes into the atmosphere. We are very conscious about the use of oils, paints, other chemicals, but not everybody can be that way. In fact, it used to be very common that doctors would tell you to take the unused drugs and throw them down the drain, and today we know that that is in fact not the best thing to do with them. ...

People's understanding of where their water comes from, I think, varies incredibly throughout the country. ... There are many communities in Missouri, Arkansas, even Louisiana, whose drinking water comes from the Mississippi River, and this water has been used many different times by many different sources throughout the Mississippi River. That water could have been fed to an animal; that water could have been used to irrigate crops; that water could have already been used by people in the city of Chicago and then discharged from the city of Chicago.

And would have a lot of pollutants in it, which need to be treated.

No question about it. ... A very large percentage of Americans do get their water from surface-water sources. Groundwater sources are not immune from these problems either, as we well know. Groundwater has many sources of contaminants to it -- landfills, animal agriculture operations, gas stations. ... These are the constituents that go into people's drinking water, and I do believe that if people understood more about their sources of drinking water, they might have a greater appreciation for the need to control pollution from all these different sources. ...

What are dead zones? Are they growing?

The term "dead zone" was first coined, I believe, in the Gulf of Mexico, and it was used to describe an area in the Gulf of Mexico that is massive. Today it is about the size of the state of Massachusetts.

The dead zone is a term that refers to a place in the water that has little to no oxygen. … Virtually nothing can survive there. It is an area that is devoid of life by and large, and it is an area that is defined because of too much pollution that goes into that environment.

The number of dead zones in the world is growing. The number of dead zones in the United States is growing. Most dead zones are caused by human pollution, although there are a couple of cases of dead zones being created under natural conditions. ... We had problems of a dead zone being created in Lake Erie in the 1970s. This was largely a result of phosphorous pollution from wastewater treatment plants.

The way a dead zone actually materializes is [when] the influx of nutrient pollution -- nitrogen and phosphorus -- stimulates the growth of algae. Algae, in turn, bloom. In some cases, by the way, this algae can be toxic in and of itself: There have been blooms of red tides, for example, that can be toxic to fish or in some cases to humans. But by and large, most algae blooms are not toxic in and of themselves. They will result in a slime or a mat of brown color, green color, sometimes a reddish-brownish color on our waterways.

What really happens in the creation of the dead zone is these algae then go through their life cycle, and they die. And in the process of dying, they sink to the bottom of that water body, and in the process of decomposing like they do, they consume oxygen. So the result is, in the water body, there is no oxygen there for the fish to survive. …

In the Chesapeake Bay, the dead zone has been growing for the last 15 years. … And in the Gulf of Mexico, the dead zone has been growing.

Now, dead zones, by their very nature, they're not going to respond necessarily on an annual basis to that year's level of pollution. Dead zone [phenomena] are going to merge, grow and shrink based on multiple-year factors. ...

Dead zones tend to happen when the water gets warmer. They tend to be much more expansive in the summertime in the Chesapeake and in the summertime in the Gulf of Mexico. So if you have a high rainfall in the spring, like this spring, for example, in the Chesapeake, we might anticipate a larger dead zone in the months of July and August when it would generally be the worst. ...

... How serious is agriculture as a source of pollution nationwide, and specifically in the Chesapeake Bay?

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 of the waters in the country. Agriculture is a complex set of activities that have a broad range of impacts on water quality and habitat. In the case of the Chesapeake, we are talking about the use of fertilizers, commercial fertilizers, as well as fertilizer that comes from animal waste, by and large being the principal cause of the problems.

Now, this manifests itself in the form of pollution from what we call animal agriculture, which is agricultural operations that are designed to raise chickens in particular in the Chesapeake, or dairy operations, which is another large source of potential pollution in the Chesapeake, and then how they actually manage the wastes that get generated from those operations. It's very often, for example, that that waste then just gets shipped to a nearby farm and then applied to the land, and, in fact, that land application can often happen in a very unsustainable, excessive manner. ...

So the problem isn't just manure, but it's too much manure.

It's too much manure and arguably too many animals under the current structure.

You mean too many animals in one place.

Exactly. ...

... Are we talking millions of pounds of manure?

We're talking the equivalent of medium-size cities in terms of the waste that is generated, that is virtually untreated, going into the Chesapeake Bay.

So cities have their waste treated, go through water treatment plants. Farming, agriculture, these concentrated animal-raising operations, they're not treated the same way.

That is absolutely correct.

And how does it get in? Is this runoff from rain or what?

There's a number of ways it gets in, but ultimately it's the runoff from the rain that contributes to the pollution of the Chesapeake. But some of these animal operations, they still store their manure in large piles out in the open that are uncovered. And so when it rains, it comes down on the manure. All the nutrients from the manure go off into the local waterways. ...

The problem of animal agriculture in the Chesapeake is probably responsible for about 50 percent of the total agricultural load of pollution to the Chesapeake.

The other half of the agricultural load comes from what you and I would think of as traditional row crop agriculture, and this is largely corn production and wheat production. In the case of corn, because of the resurgence nationwide in biofuels, we are in fact seeing an increasing acreage, increasing intensity of corn production in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. These crops typically require significant inputs of fertilizer for them to grow successfully, and that fertilizer can be both commercial fertilizer as well as animal fertilizer.

And generally speaking, these are very leaky systems. As you apply fertilizer, rain comes. This fertilizer then runs off the ground or through the groundwater into the Chesapeake Bay.

Overall, agriculture is probably responsible for roughly 60 percent of the total pollution to the Chesapeake. It varies a little bit, depending on how much rainfall you'll get in a year. In a wetter year, the agricultural percentage could be as high as 70 percent of the load. In a drier year, it could be down to 40 percent. ...

Why are agricultural sources so hard to control?

Because I think it is still something that is very new to government, very new to members of the agricultural community, and I think it's also fair to say that farmers are not generally open to increasing government regulation. Farmers are free-spirited individuals. … They've got an intense respect for their land and for their future generations of farmers that might come from their family. And they run on very narrow margins. These are all small businesses with not a lot of extra profit to pour into pollution control. ...

And so for the last 20 years, [with] increasing scientific knowledge of the problems of agriculture, it's very hard to move the status quo despite that knowledge and actually get on-the-ground changes in controlling pollution.

... We've been out to a number of farms on the Eastern Shore [of Maryland] that raise chickens, and you find somebody with five or six modern chicken houses, each of them with 40,000 birds at a time. ... The folks who resent regulations say you shouldn't crack down on the family farmer, and the folks who say we've got to do more pollution controls say: "Wait a second. This is an industrial site. If this were a plant producing widgets or producing something else, it would be regulated." So where do you come down? ...

Chicken farming in the Chesapeake Bay watershed is without question industrial-scale. By and large, these are integrated industries that are controlled by a very small number of companies. There are, in fact, family farmers who are under contract with these large corporations to produce birds within certain specifications for them. I don't really believe [in] this as a small family farm operation under anyone's definition. ...

The question that comes up in my mind after having seen these operations is, who's running the operation? ... We're told that Perdue or Tyson's ... owns the bird, gets the bird at the end, provides the feed, sets a regimen, tells the farmer how to do this, maybe selling him the chicken houses as well. In other words, they run the whole operation, but they don't own the manure. ... What's going on here?

There's no question that the large integrators, companies like Perdue or Tyson's, bear a huge responsibility for managing this waste in a way that is safe for the Chesapeake Bay and the environment. It is also true that given the complex relationship they have with their so-called contract growers that some of that responsibility also lies with the contract growers as well.

In the regulatory sense, government sense, lawyers will tell you that if in fact an integrator exerts what they call "substantial operational control" over the operations of a contractor, that that integrator -- that Perdue or Tyson's -- in fact is responsible jointly in managing those wastes, even if, in fact, the contractor is the one that in fact owns those wastes.

And so, as we've moved and developed our pollution control laws, there's little question in most regulators' mind that in fact the integrator does have a responsibility for that waste, even if in fact it's not in the terms of the contract with the contract grower. …

When you were at the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency], did you regulate or get regulations that would control the manure and make the big chicken companies like Tyson's and Perdue responsible?

Yes, I tried at EPA to do it. My successors have tried, and my predecessors have tried, and I think what all of us have run into is a very complex set of relationships between the integrators, their contract growers and, frankly, a very complex political environment that we all operate in. ...

So what's the problem?

... There's no question that political ideologies play in here. In the Clinton administration, we really tried to base our decisions on what was the best science and what would be the most effective way to improve water quality. It was very clear to us that increasing the responsibility of the Big Chicken companies in managing their own waste was in fact going to be a high priority in solving some of the water-quality problems that we faced in our nation. We proposed some regulations to do that. The next administration made some decisions to change those regulations and do it in different ways. ...

Do the Big Chicken companies accept responsibility or not?

By and large, the Big Chicken companies have opposed a lot of regulations that have been suggested to regulate their industry and to improve water quality. There has been some acceptance of their responsibility by some of the companies. There's no question that they are trying new experiments of ways of using the manure that is getting stockpiled. For example, Perdue was involved with a pelletization company on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, trying to find a way to use some of the excess manure that has been generated. ...

Is there a political battle that goes on at the federal level, at the state level in which the political muscle of agriculture simply outguns the environmentalists?

There are intense political battles between conservation and agricultural interests on water pollution-control issues -- incredibly intense political battles. I've personally had the joy of being a part of many of these. When I was advancing federal regulations that would have had an impact on the agricultural community, I probably had no less than seven requests to testify before the House and Senate agriculture committees.

Friendly to farmers.

Absolutely. And I think it's fair to describe these hearings that I would appear at as openly hostile to some of the environmental ideas that we were trying to advance at the time. There is a very strong agricultural lobby that works at the federal level and at the state level that has unquestionably had success in minimizing the ultimate strength of some of these environmental regulations. There's no question about that.

Our success in Maryland in part has come when we have been able to work together with the agriculture community. There's a number of examples of that. But it's also true that our failures, I think, in large part have been responsible because we haven't been able to set in place a set of rules and requirements that would be applicable to the agriculture community just as they would be applicable to any other small business, medium business or large business in Maryland.

I'm not quite clear what your message is. Does tough regulation work, or does collaboration work better?

I'm a firm believer that environmental pollution-control success in this country only happens with tough regulation. To get that tough regulation, you often need to do so in a somewhat collaborative environment. But in the end, the regulator needs to be able to make a decision with the political support that they need to have these regulations developed and implemented.

By and large, today, the agriculture community is regulated nowhere near as effectively or as stringently as other major sources of pollution in this country, and there's no question that the influence of the agricultural farm lobby in general has had a very successful role in limiting the amount of pollution control regulations that we see in the Chesapeake Bay watershed or nationwide.

... Does the voluntary approach work in your estimation? Has it worked? What's the record?

... I'm not aware of any voluntary pollution control program in our nation's history that has in fact performed at a high [enough] level sufficient to truly control pollution on a very large scale. ...

States will often say that Big Chicken will threaten to move their operations to some other part of the country if some particular state tries to crack down.

In fact, Big Chicken will sometimes argue they'll even leave the United States and they'll move to Southeast Asia. I've heard all of these arguments before. At some level we are working today with a global economy, and we have to be very mindful of all this, but at the same time, we can't be held hostage for this. ...

By and large, pollution control is a minuscule amount of the bottom line of any company today. Labor costs are clearly much higher. Capital equipment costs are much higher. The cost of the feed in the case of the chickens is huge. ...

... If you step back and take a look at the American environmental protection regime and the sense of momentum that had built in the '70s and '80s, ... where do you think we are, and why aren't we further? ...

My sense is today's world is very, very complicated, and it's becoming increasingly complicated.

When I first came to Washington, D.C., to do this work in the early 1980s, there was a very rigorous reauthorization of environmental laws that happened every five or 10 years. We haven't seen a major reauthorization of a law in this country in more than a decade. And this is in large part because the political dynamics in Washington, D.C., and in state legislatures around the country are much more polarized today. In many cases, they're very partisan. In some cases, we have seen the growth of various interest groups in their political sophistication. In some ways, we've seen people get a whole range of interests and concerns in their lives, whether it's the price of gasoline, the price of their kids' education. I think today, compared to 20 years ago, we're dealing with a society that is vastly more complicated and today probably a lot more polarized. ...

... Can you look at trends, can you look at events, can you look at particular administrations or particular leaders who had an impact on this? ...

If you go back since the 1970s, President Nixon in fact was a very strong environmental leader. This was the president who created the EPA, created the Council on Environmental Quality, was actively involved in major reauthorizations of the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act. I think we saw continued improvements and growth with the Carter administration.

But there's no question that the Reagan administration, in fact, brought to Washington a deregulatory agenda that in fact became part of the theme for the Republican Party for many years and generations to come. … I remember back in the Reagan days of seeing memos that would come out from the White House to the Chamber of Commerce and other big businesses, asking them for a list of regulations from which they would want relief. ... We had to do a much more extensive job of documenting potential costs of regulation, potential benefits of regulation. The internal procedures within the administration were changed dramatically. A lot of agencies could then weigh in and offer their comments on it. …

Environmentalism was never a partisan issue, really. ... It became really a partisan issue in a very strong way under Newt Gingrich's leadership in the House of Representatives. ...

What was it Newt Gingrich [R-Ga.] did?

The Contract with America had a number of key elements in it ... which really got into fundamental relationships of government regulation and the question of whether or not government had to provide compensation in the face of that regulation. One could imagine under Gingrich's Contract with America, for example, a scenario where, in fact, the regulatory control abilities of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency could have been constrained because ... it might have had to explore whether or not it had to provide compensation to private interests [when] it's taking some pollution rights away. …

How important is the Chesapeake Bay or Puget Sound as an indicator and a case study of the state of environmental protection and the dangers of environmental pollution for America as a whole?

... I think the Chesapeake, in fact, is hugely important. ... Our base of knowledge in the Chesapeake about what it takes to save an estuary, to clean up a water body, far exceeds that of anywhere else in the world. There has been so much investment in science and in modeling and in monitoring. We know today precisely what is necessary to save the Chesapeake, and now it's very clear: It comes down to the question of political will.

Puget Sound is very similar. Puget Sound is a place that was one of the first regional watershed-based cleanup programs in this country, and I think in many ways as goes Puget Sound, as goes the Chesapeake, not just so goes the country, but, in fact, so goes the world. ...

And are we talking just about coastal waters? Or is what we learn from and see in the Chesapeake Bay and Puget Sound relevant to inland waters? ...

What we now know today better than we've ever known is that not only does water run downhill, but we're all connected, and the reality is that the problems in the Chesapeake are rooted perhaps in upstate New York. The problems in the Gulf of Mexico might be rooted in Minnesota. The health of the Great Lakes is very much tied to the health of our communities throughout the Great Lakes watershed. All of this is connected. ...

Some people say that if we simply enforced the Clean Water Act properly, we could clean up Chesapeake Bay. [Do you agree, and if so,] how long would it take?

If we were to aggressively enforce the Clean Water Act, I firmly believe we could clean up the Chesapeake Bay in between 10 and 15 years, perhaps 20 years. The question really is, how aggressive can we be in enforcing the Clean Water Act? Do we need to augment the Clean Water Act in some ways? ...

People like [environmentalist and author] Tom Horton say we blame the politicians for a lack of political will, but we keep electing the politicians, and the real problem is that we as a people don't care enough.

I love Tom, and at some level his point is correct. We as a people always have historically put environmental quality low on our list of top-priority issues that we expect performance from our elected officials. Most polls show issues of the economy, national security greatly exceeding those of quality of life, and people generally don't hold elected officials accountable based on their votes on the environment.

Having said that, I think these issues are rising in importance on people's agenda. ... The polling data today on issues of climate change suggest that we are at a very high degree of awareness, a very high degree of concern about what these issues are going to mean for not just our generation but for our children. ...

I think we really have a challenge here in our society now, though, because we have a window of time on a whole range of issues, whereas if we do not succeed in taking action in the next 10 to 20 years on a whole range of issues --

Environmental issues.

-- on environmental issues, we are in fact putting our planet on a trajectory that it will be very, very hard to undo and to change. ... Whether that's issues of climate change, whether it's issues of pollution, whether it's issues of overfishing, whether it's issues of food sustainability, the decisions we make in the next 10 to 15 years, I think, are going to have a profound effect as to our planet's future over the next 100 years.

posted april 21, 2009

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