TV Reviews of 'Frontline: Poisoned Waters' and 'Watermen'

By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Want to save the Chesapeake Bay? Figure out how to set it on fire.

Fire, at least when it breaks out in an inland waterway, is the kind of pollution problem that focuses the nation's attention. Gets us moving. So you're saying it should be wet? Mmm-hmm. And now it has literally begun to combust? Mmm-hmm. Somebody wake up the senator.

It worked for the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, of course, where industrial glop on the surface was touched off by a spark from a passing railroad car in 1969. That short blaze led not only to a comeback for the Cuyahoga -- it now has 25 fish species and bald eagles -- but also created national outrage that led to the first Earth Day in 1970 and the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972.

The Chesapeake, sick as it is, has never been flammable. And it has never been fixed.

Tonight, on the eve of the 40th Earth Day, a two-hour documentary from the PBS "Frontline" series asks, in essence, whether those two facts are related.

The "Frontline" film "Poisoned Waters" is the more conventional of two Chesapeake documentaries debuting on local television this week -- the other being an impressionistic film on Chesapeake watermen shot in the 1960s, as the bay's decline was starting to accelerate. It dives deep into the bay's problems: the underwater "dead zones," the gender-bending bass in the Potomac River and the waterway-polluting, regulation-busting clout of Big Chicken.

But the film runs aground on a very old problem with the Chesapeake story. The bay's problems and their causes are often invisible, and -- unlike the flaming Cuyahoga -- it is near-impossible to find a single camera shot that will make viewers connect the dots.

"Poisoned Waters" was produced by "Frontline" correspondent Hedrick Smith, a former longtime New York Times reporter. It focuses on the Chesapeake and Puget Sound, near Seattle. The home of the blue crab and the playground of the orca aren't overwhelmingly similar, but they have in common problems with sprawl-related pollution -- and Smith, who has houses on both.

"Chesapeake Bay is in trouble, despite years of trying to save it," he says at the beginning. "And that worries me."

It worries a lot of people, including me. I've covered the Chesapeake for The Post for most of the past five years. In that time, I've always struggled for the right way to tell a story that can't be traced back to bright-green ooze or mustache-twirling baddies.

The Chesapeake story plays out under our noses, but usually out of sight: Microscopic particles of manure, sewage and fertilizer are swept downstream, where they are food for almost-as-tiny algae. These algae remove something you can't see (oxygen) and, in so doing, suffocate things that live hidden under the brown water, such as fish, crabs and oysters.

Smith, trying to put a sharp point on this slippery problem, uses visual imagery to arresting effect. His cameras find a dead she-crab on the barren bay bottom -- a forlorn image worthy of T.S. Eliot, except these ragged claws are no longer even scuttling. On the floor of Puget Sound, they show a brown cloud of pollution pouring out the end of a storm-water pipe.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2009 The Washington Post Company