Navigating America's 'Poisoned Waters' Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Hedrick Smith details widespread pollution of America's waterways in the PBS Frontline documentary Poisoned Waters.
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Navigating America's 'Poisoned Waters'

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Navigating America's 'Poisoned Waters'

Navigating America's 'Poisoned Waters'

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This is FRESH AIR. Im Terry Gross. Should we be concerned that scientists are finding six-legged frogs and male fish with ovaries in the Potomac River and Chesapeake Bay? Journalist Hedrick Smith thinks so. He says limitations affecting aquatic life in those waters may be connected to chemicals seeping into rivers and lakes around the country that are the sources of much of our drinking water.

And these chemicals poisoning our water arent just coming from industrial plants. Theyre coming from agriculture, suburban development, and from our cars and chemicals and the products we use every day, like cleansers and toothpaste. Hedrick Smith is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who is senior producer and correspondent for "Poisoned Waters," a Frontline documentary which premieres tomorrow night on public television. In 18 months of research, Smith says hes found the nations water resources face threats which are very different from those which prompted the passage of the Clean Water Act, but no less troubling. Hedrick Smith spoke to FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies.

DAVE DAVIES: Well, Hedrick Smith, welcome back to FRESH AIR. This story begins in Chesapeake Bay. Describe this body of water and its ecological significance for us.

Mr. HEDRICK SMITH (Journalist): Well, I will, Dave, but just let me say for a moment that Ive had a house on the Chesapeake Bay for 30 years. Im a sailor. Im a crabber, not a very good fisherman. Im a swimmer. Im a hiker. I love the bay. I love the water. So this is a - an environmental story but its also a story of some personal significance to me, reported here and on Puget Sound. Both bodies of water are bodies I know personally. And I think part of that is whats important about these bodies of water.

They are great areas of recreation and of importance to the people of many regions, Chesapeake Bay serving six states. These great coastal estuaries like the Chesapeake Bay are marvelous environmental laboratories because their environment is so rich with marine life, with all kinds of topography, and scientists love to study them. And weve been studying it for a long time. Being closed to the nations capital, it was one of the areas which the Environmental Protection Agency under Bill Ruckelshaus, who has served both President Nixon and President Reagan, singled out for particular attention, trying to gather the six states together to set goals and dramatically reduce the - the pollution that was so palpable in peoples faces back in the 1970s, so bad that if you put your hand in the water in some places, itd come out with green algae on it.

This Chesapeake Bay became one of the places that was afflicted but also one of the places where the government focused its efforts. And so taking a look at the Chesapeake Bay today is a way of taking the thermometer and applying it to Americas waterways generally from coast to coast.

DAVIES: How do we know the bay is in trouble today?

Mr. SMITH: Well, there are any number of indicators - one of them is that today the oysters are down to two percent, the crabs are about 50 percent of what theyre just 25 years ago. You have dead zones that now occupy about 40 percent of the main stem of the Chesapeake Bay in the heat of summertime and dead zones are places like the face of the moon, although theyre under water. Theyre so barren that absolutely nothing can live in them. And they kill fish, crabs, wildlife.

There are no grasses down there in which - in which all the marine life needs to grow. And thats all been caused by human pollution, by runoff with phosphorous and nitrogen in it that creates algae, that when it dies sinks to the bottom and sucks all the oxygen out of the water and even fish and all these other wildlife creatures, aquatic creatures need oxygen in the same way people do.

DAVIES: Now, as you described a moment ago, in the 1970s there was national outrage at this extremely visible kind of water pollution - the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland catching fire and Lake Erie appearing, you know, all but dead, and that of course prompted Congress to act and enact the Clean Water Act.

How is the water pollution that the nation confronted then different from the kinds of threats to places like the Chesapeake Bay and other bodies of water today?

Mr. SMITH: Well, in the old days pollution came basically from large installations - industry or wastewater treatment plants, came out of a pipe. It was known as point source pollution. You could see right where it came from. The modern pollution is much more dispersed. Its much more spread out. Whether its agriculture pollution because of animal manure or fertilizers used on farms or these industrial scale chicken and hog and cattle growing operations, which basically arent regulated by the Clean Water Act, or its the storm water runoff from our roads and our developments and our suburbs, which have all kinds of chemicals in them that come from all kinds of products in our lives. So its a very different kind. The new pollution is a very different kind of pollution and much harder to get a handle on than the old pollution in the old industrial days.

DAVIES: All right, its a very different regulatory challenge when you have a pipe to an industrial polluter. Let - lets talk about agricultural pollution as a piece of this. Now, there have been stories about dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico from all of the agricultural runoff that goes down the Mississippi River. In Chesapeake Bay, which as you said is a sort of a good laboratory for examining these issues, youve got the issue of industrial scale chicken farming in the Delmarva Peninsula, which is Delaware and Maryland and Virginia. How is chicken farming different there now than it used to be and whats its ecological impact?

Mr. SMITH: Well, essentially its done what almost everything else is done in the American economy; its grown to scale. Its mass production now. It used to be family farms and family farms used to mean people who raised hundreds or maybe a few thousand chickens. Now there are a couple of million chickens raised on a family farm, but its now an industry. Fly over it and its six or seven sheds each with 40,000 or 50,000 chickens in them at any one time and the growing season has been shortened.

And the result is you have this enormous concentration of chicken manure. Youve got concentrated growing of chicken, which is efficient, and youve got a concentrated growing of manure, which is very troublesome. Just one figure that will capture it. There were 570 million chickens grown on the eastern shore of the Delmarva Peninsula last year and they produced 1.5 billion pounds of chicken manure, and thats more manure than the human manure from the cities of New York, Washington, San Francisco, and Atlanta all put together.

And the human manure gets processed by wastewater treatment plants. The chicken manure doesnt. So a lot of it when it rains, its out on the fields, its just left in piles, rain hits, washes the manure into the - into the waterways, and youve got E-coli bacteria, but youve also got phosphorus and nitrogen, which create the algae that creates the dead zone. So theres a direct connection between the dying of the bay and this large unregulated animal manure problem.

DAVIES: And of course theres a connection to our lifestyles. We love getting, you know, low-priced food and inexpensive chickens. And there are big companies that process them - Tyson and Perdue. They dont own the chicken farm. They buy the chickens from the chicken farmers. Who is responsible for...

Mr. SMITH: Well...

DAVIES: Well, yeah, whats the relationship? Whos responsible...

Mr. SMITH: Well, actually its very - very interesting. Chicken growing in America has now become kind of tenant farming. Its modern tenant farming on a very large scale. It used to be that the chicken growers - the farmers own the chickens and then they sold them after they grew them to the processors, theyre called the integrators - the Perdues, the Tysons. Actually, now whats going on is that - the chicken integrators own everything. They own little baby chicks, which they deliver to the chicken growers and then pick them up seven or eight weeks later as grown chickens.

They provide the feed. They provide all the medicine to the biology to take care of the chickens. They regularly supervise the chicken growers. They go by there every week or so, make sure the temperature inside the chicken house is right. I mean its really run as though this were Japanese (unintelligible). Theres the big company at the top and these are the little guys at the bottom and they salute and follow the orders of the people at the top.

But the amazing thing is the big chicken integrators own everything except the manure or if chickens die while the farmers are growing baby chicks, they dont own the dead chickens. In other words, they own all the good stuff and dont know own any of the bad stuff

DAVIES: And when you say chicken integrators, you mean these big companies like Tyson and Perdue, right?

Mr. SMITH: Thats what I mean. They integrate the whole process, thats why theyre called the chicken integrator.

DAVIES: So they dont take responsibility for disposal of the manure and farmers leave - it runs off their farms into streams and into the bay.

Mr. SMITH: Well, the argument was, and there was some logic to it historically, that farmers who raised chickens and also grew corn or soybeans or whatever, they needed the manure from the chickens to fertilize their fields and it was a good deal. And so long as you did this as a fairly small scale, it was a reasonable balance between the amount of manure produced and the amount of manure that was needed. But when you went to industrial scale with multibillion dollar companies, it went off the charts.

It was just way, way, way too much manure for the local farmers to be able to absorb, and maybe there are other places in the country - golf courses, Augusta National, whatever, across the country, that need chicken manure, but no farmer can afford to ship it down there. So it gets left right on the - on the Delmarva Peninsula. And farmers often didnt even have sheds to store it. And so it sat out in the fields and when the rain came it just washed the manure down into the waterways.

Now there are regulations sort of saying you got to create sheds and - and put it under sheds, but then theres a question as to whether or not either the Federal government or state government has enough inspectors to check on this. I think with the cattle farms in Pennsylvania theres something like one or two inspectors for 13, 14 counties. They dont get around to see very much whether or not the manure is properly cared for.

DAVIES: Now, just to be clear. There are technological solutions to this if regulators will adopt them?

Mr. SMITH: Well, there are of a variety of solutions to this. I mean, one thing is Perdue has pioneered making pellets - taking the manure, taking it to a processing plants, squeezing all the water out of it, drying it, and then making it granular and then somehow finding ways to ship it. I mentioned a few moments ago golf courses across the country. There are golf courses and other places around the country that do need manure, if it can be packaged, fertilizer; they need it, theyll take it.

But thats all, thats only about 10 percent of the excess manure. Another thing to do is to ship it to other areas by truck. There are some people who think that there maybe technology which will be able to convert manure into energy that you can eventually make power plants out of it now. How youre going to do that without polluting the air and turning around and then have it pollute the water again and stink up the whole place is not yet clear. The technological answers havent come through, but there are people who are talking about that as one of the ultimate solutions, but were - were quite a ways away from that.

DAVIES: Hedrick Smith is senior producer and correspondent for the new Frontline documentary "Poisoned Waters." Well talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: If youre just joining us, our guest is Hedrick Smith. He is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. He is also the senior producer and correspondent for the upcoming Frontline episode "Poisoned Waters." I wanted to talk about some of the - the new chemicals that are appearing in waterways, and this is dramatically illustrated in the documentary by some of the aquatic life in the Potomac River. What are you seeing with some these animals?

Mr. SMITH: Well, part of what happened was some years ago the people in charge of the fish and game commissions in Virginia and West Virginia began noticing unusual fish kills in the upper Potomac, the Shenandoah River, and they couldnt explain them. There would be hundreds of fish found floating belly up, and so they called in the U.S. Geological Survey and some other scientists to try to figure out what was going on. And they began to find not only fish kills but they began to find abnormalities in the fish, one problem called intersex, which is female eggs in the male gonads of small-mouth bass. Thats a very alarming thing.

I mean elsewhere in the country theyve found alligators with small penises, theyve found frogs with six legs, theyve found mutations that are, when you stop to think about them, are really horrible. If they happened to human beings, people would be up in arms, and these are warnings, the scientists now believe, about whats in these waters.

DAVIES: So what do they think might be causing this?

Mr. SMITH: Well, these are apparently chemicals that are in many, many modern products of our modern lifestyle. I mean, were talking about chemicals, believe it or not, in our toothpaste, in our deodorants, in our skin creams, in our shampoos, in our household cleaning items, in the pesticides and herbicides that we put on our lawns to make them pretty and green, in many of the things that come off our cars; were not aware of it, but as we drive down the road, our cars drop oil and grease, hydrocarbons, but they also drop bits of metal and heavy metals - chromium, aluminum, mercury.

Lots of other heavy metals, including copper, which is pervasive, are bad for nature and science has begun to trace them back as sources of either killing, maiming or distorting the growth of various different fish and creatures, and now scientists are starting to say theres growing evidence that they pose a health threat to human beings in very, very serious areas like cancer, like reproductive skills. I mean theres lower sperm count among men, and then distortions in infant children when theyre born, in their urinary tracts and so forth.

So its a really disturbing trend, and science hasnt gotten to the bottom of it and the EPA has not yet figured out how to regulate it.

DAVIES: And just to be clear: Were not talking about chemicals which are a byproduct of an industrial process and piped into a body of water. Were talking about stuff that is in storm water run-off, byproducts of the chemicals that we use in our lives.

Mr. SMITH: Yeah, this is a radically different kind of pollution than the pollution we started out worrying about back in the 1970s, that old industrial pollution. This is pervasive. These are products that are throughout our economy. You walk down the aisles of a grocery store and youre looking at a lot of these products every day. These are products that are now built into our modern lifestyles. A matter of fact, its very interesting just the other day, the EPA announced for the first time, and this is a big change over the last decade or so, announced that they were going to ask a number of companies to check into the certain chemicals, 65 specific chemicals, in these kinds of products.

And some of the companies have begun to disclose some of these chemicals in some states. Washington state, for example, has regulated PBDEs, which are flame retardants that are in childrens pajamas, that are in computers, that are in couches, that are in rugs. These things, we dont even think about them. We dont see them. In fact, thats a telltale sign of modern pollution. It is largely invisible. Its not like the old pollution which was visible and palpable. This stuff you cant see, you dont realize its there. And I think thats one reason why the public isnt as concerned about how our environment is and how our waterways are, the same way it was back in the 70s.

DAVIES: Right. Now, I live in Philadelphia. My drinking water gets drawn from the Schuylkill and Delaware rivers. And people all over the country get water from nearby bodies of water. And unlike decades ago, its now treated. There are standards and there are treatment plants. To what extent are levels of these new chemicals measured in our drinking water or treated in the plants?

Mr. SMITH: Well, the first thing you need to know is that - that the water that gets into whatever drinking water system youre using, comes from up river. And up river, there are cities and communities as well as farming areas and so forth, that have used the water before. So, everybody has - almost everybody is using somebody elses wastewater that has been treated. So, how well its treated upstream is very important. But when you get to these new chemicals, theyve come into being since standards were set. And what we were told by scientists and by the U.S. Geological Survey is that there are no standards set.

And frankly, only very recently, only in the last two or three years have scientists developed the methods to detect these chemicals at the very small levels at which they exist. But these chemicals are very harmful to nature and potentially very harmful to humans at extremely low levels. So, number one, there are no safety standards. And number two, there arent the filters. The old filters wont catch them. We had one example here in the Washington aqueduct, which takes the drinking water for the nations capital from the Potomac River. The U.S. Geological Survey did some testing on that water body.

They had a watch list of 300 chemicals. They found 85 of them in the water going into the intakes for the Washington drinking water system. And two-thirds of those made it through the filters into the tap water, into the drinking water of the people of Washington, D.C. So, the answer is the old standards and the old filters are not catching these new chemical dangers.

DAVIES: Hedrick Smith is senior producer and correspondent for the new Frontline documentary "Poisoned Waters." Well talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: If youre just joining us, our guest is Hedrick Smith. He is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. He is also a senior producer and correspondent of the new upcoming frontline program "Poisoned Waters." You talk in the documentary about the threat that unregulated development poses to the nations bodies of water, happens all over the country. One of the most extreme cases is Tysons Corner, Virginia. What makes it unique?

Mr. SMITH: Yeah, Tysons is a fascinating story. Its a story that sort of epitomizes Americas romance with the car and the fantastic explosion and sprawl of edge cities of suburbs that they became almost bigger than cities themselves. Tysons Corner, 50 years ago, was a crossroads, literally a corner in the midst of huge dairy farms, open farms, about halfway between the National Airport and where is now Dulles or halfway between the Pentagon and what is now Dulles Airport. It is today an edge city where 120,000 people work every day, larger than downtown Boston or downtown Phoenix or downtown Atlanta, with a bigger workforce. It is absolutely choked with traffic. It has something like 47 million square feet of office space and 40 million square feet of parking lots.

Parking lots are devastating for the environment because they gather all kinds of dirt and all kinds of chemicals and particularly I mentioned before, the chemicals that come off cars, oil, grease, hydrocarbons, metals, all kinds of industrial stuff that gets dumped and things that people throw away and so forth. And when it rains, its just a sea. Its just sheets of water sliding down into the nearby creeks, creeks of the Potomac River and into Chesapeake Bay. So, from this environmental standpoint, its murder. And now, even for the people who are the business leaders of Tysons Corner, it is choking on its own success. Theyre dying from cars and theyre trying to figure out some way to get out of it.

And whats interesting is some of the thinking is sort of changing at Tysons Corner about whats the right way to go. Growth is coming but how do we handle it?

DAVIES: And one of the issues of Tysons is that really it wasnt - it was planned as a destination for work as an office area, not a residential community, right?

Mr. SMITH: Yeah, thats one of the problems. I mean, cities grow up and you have a mix of commerce and residence and industry. And Tysons Corner was both one of the countrys biggest shopping malls, I think its fifth or sixth largest shopping mall, and its a huge office center with lots of the beltway bandits, who are contractors of the Pentagon, National Security Agency, CIA, whatever, all kinds of people work there. And they all travel there by car and only about five or eight percent of them live there. Everybody commutes, so its just an unbelievable continuous traffic jam almost around the clock.

DAVIES: You point out that theres an alternative development model nearby in Arlington. Describe that.

Mr. SMITH: Well, whats interesting is, Arlington didnt have quite the same set of choices. But it basically decided to build its development around the Metro system, which is Washingtons subway system and sometimes in the Virginia suburbs its on the surface. But Metro connects suburbs in Maryland and Virginia with downtown Washington, D.C. and the whole District of Columbia. And they have a corridor in which they get development which had about five or six Metro stops in Arlington, which is just across the Potomac River from D.C. And around that area, over the last 25 or 30 years, population has doubled or tripled.

The job numbers have doubled or tripled and the number of cars has stayed roughly the same. So that you have not increased the congestion, you have - and theyve been very careful with the development of the way they handle storm water runoff or the way they process the water, the way they channel the water. And the result is that Arlington has had enormous growth, enormous economic prosperity without any of the environmental or even traffic headaches that the county next door where Tysons Corner exists has had. So, people are sort of comparing these two development models.

Arlington is called smart growth. Its growing up, not growing out. They built new apartment and office buildings on top of old used car lots and old parking lots. So, the amount of impervious surfaces, paved surfaces, asphalt or concrete has not increased. So that the water is still hitting the same area. And actually there are more green spaces in the county than there were before, not a lot but a little bit. And the green spaces in the counties further out, further away from the city have not been eaten up by suburban sprawl in part, thanks to the concentrated development in Arlington.

DAVIES: You know, one of the interesting things about the ecological impacts of this kind of development, the kind of development which paves over huge areas and creates harmful storm water runoff, is that its different from the kind of pollution that were accustomed to thinking of being the subject of federal regulation. The truth is, the development is largely a matter of local officials, city officials, country zoning boards. So, to deal with this, what do you need, citizen activists who demand a different approach?

Mr. SMITH: Well, I have to say, Dave, one of the things that really interested me in doing this documentary was to discover, first of all, I was shocked by how bad the problem is and how long we put it on the back burner. And you can do that for a while but after 25 years of deregulation and being on the back burner, we need to do something. But the other thing that struck me was that when communities get involved and there is grassroots civic action, they can have a real impact. I mean, the decision to go to smart growth in Arlington County was a decision made by the Arlington County council. It wasnt dictated by the federal government.

It wasnt dictated even by the state government of Virginia. And there was a lot of interchange between the county government and all kinds of communities in Arlington. So, it was a very grassroots, democratic process. And in two counties over in Loudon County, they have in recent years had the horrendous battle between people who are trying to preserve the county as having a lot of green space but still being handy to the metropolitan area against developers who are for pell-mell development.

And they want to go the way of Tysons Corner with intense sprawl and bringing in all this traffic and building many more highways. And the local activists led by a group called the Piedmont Environmental Council really energized all kinds of local activists to oppose this pell-mell growth, to try to keep growth channeled into certain areas. And the argument really wasnt interesting enough about the environment. Chris Miller, the head of Piedmont Environmental Council says you got to retail environmental politics.

Youve got to make it relevant to people about whats going on in their backyard. And thats traffic congestion, thats raising tax rates paying the cost the developers need for the infrastructure that makes it profitable for them to move in. And building many more new schools and having your kids jump from one school to another. These are enormous headaches for the people in Loudon County. So, they effectively fought off uncontrolled development. They didnt say they were for no growth, but they tried to channel the growth into certain areas and to manage it. And in both communities, in Arlington County and in Loudon County, I mean it does show that if you get involved, you can have an impact.

DAVIES: Well, were out of time. Hedrick Smith, thanks so much for speaking with us.

Mr. SMITH: Thank you.

GROSS: Hedrick Smith spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies. Smith is a senior producer and correspondent for tomorrow nights PBS Frontline documentary "Poisoned Waters." David Davies is a senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily News. You can download podcasts of our show on our Web site,

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