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CapeCod 12/04/2011 - 12:52PM

Living Downstream in our backyards

Steve Seymour and Sue Phelan of GreenCAPE

Steve Seymour and Sue Phelan of GreenCAPE follow up Living Downstream with a post-film discussion. Gotta love screening in a venue lined with mirrors!

Friday’s screening of Living Downstream hit home in a number of ways.

Not only was Woods Hole (a village of Falmouth, where we’re located) prominently featured as a place of respite for Sandra Steingraber and her family, the doc focused on the nearby city of New Bedford as one of the most concentrated PCB and heavy metal dump sites in the US, if not the world.

That’s little comfort when we share the same body of water for swimming, boating, fishing and shellfishing. According to David Dow, a CP regular and president of the local Sierra Club chapter, the solution they’ve come up with for New Bedford Harbor—after 7 years of dredging toxic sediment—is to cap the site. With PCB’s, it is more dangerous to disturb the sediments than to leave them lying there, it seems.

It kind of turns the “pollute now, pay later” argument on its short-sighted head. While Cape Cod does not have any manufacturing plants like those featured in the film, we are indeed "Living Downstream" from serious pollutants.

In the neighborhood of Hatchville, where we screen films each week, a serious chemical plume from the nearby military base was found in the groundwater in the 1990’s. Ethylene dibromide, an toxic chemical used as an additive to leaded gasoline, was found in drinking water supplies and local ponds and rivers. After intense citizen pressure, the Air Force was forced to pump and treat the plume, one of the most expensive cleanup projects to date. The wells were capped and the Air Force paid for residents and farms to connect to town water.

Fast forward to 2011. Towns across Cape Cod are now in the second year of a moratorium on spraying pesticides under power lines. Sue Phelan and Steve Seymour, of GreenCAPE (Cape Alliance for Pesticide Education) led a post-film discussion on their campaign to get the regional electric utility, NStar, to stop using chemicals on these public rights of way.

Spraying 5 different herbicides (including glyphosate, the main ingredient in RoundUp) and surfactants above the Cape’s sole-source aquifer calls the entire practice into question, Steve pointed out. According to label guidelines, the chemicals should not be applied at all in winds above 5 mph—a rare occasion on our windy peninsula. And while each herbicide is deemed safe and biodegradable, they have not been studied in combination with other chemicals, he said.

Furthermore, Sue noted the decades-old research cited by NStar and government agencies wishing to pass the buck. She also pointed out that the US EPA does not approve chemicals—it merely registers them. In this age when EPA funding is called into question with every budget, it is no wonder that the EPA relies on the chemical companies to study—and regulate—itself.

As a member of the audience rightly pointed out, NStar is far from the only culprit of pesticide proliferation. Residents, towns, and even wildlife and conservation agencies are admitted, unabashed users.

Though Sue & Steve are hesitant to call it a victory, their work led all 15 towns on Cape Cod to adopt a resolution this winter calling on NStar to use mechanical methods to manage vegetation under power lines (which is what they did on Cape Cod prior to 2006).

The utility, reluctantly, agreed to a second year of mowing and cutting under the power lines. Meanwhile, Sue collects hand-written letters from concerned residents and every few days, she sends a batch to the home of NStar’s CEO, Tom May.

GreenCAPE is also looking into innovative ways of dealing with those pesky trees and bushes that grow up under the power lines. Apparently they’ve had offers from a local goat herder who would set the animals out to graze on the rights of way, free of charge. This isn’t some pie-in-the-sky idea: such innovative ideas as goat grazing and blueberry-bush planting have been employed with great success in California.

To paraphrase Margaret Mead, do not underestimate the power of small groups of people to create change; in fact it’s the only thing that ever has.

Special thanks to GreenCAPE for co-sponsoring this screening with Cinema Politica!


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