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Chesapeake 'Waters' Flows Uneasily

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.

And the film also provides several moments of crackling journalism. Smith takes on the Eastern Shore's chicken industry and prods its representatives into the kind of verbal evasions that would twinkle a tobacco industry scientist's eye.

He also wrings a startling admission from a scientist who discovered that male fish in the Potomac River are growing eggs. Smith asks: Would she drink Washington tap water, which comes from the same river?

"Probably not," she says.

But many viewers may not make it that far. In trying to connect the dots of this complex problem, the film climbs deeper into the weeds than a molting blue crab. We get the unabridged history of Tysons Corner's sprawl, and deep-dive into the controversy over industrial pollution in Seattle's Duwamish River. By the end of the second hour, an environmentalist gives the film its punch line: "This is sick. It doesn't look sick, but it is sick." But, by that point, many of Smith's viewers may already be looking at "Law & Order."

This film was in production for two years. But the other Chesapeake special, the one-hour "Watermen" -- which premieres Thursday on Maryland Public Television -- has a far longer back story.

In the mid-1960s, a pair of young filmmakers began hanging out in watermen's communities on the bay's Eastern Shore. They focused on Art Daniels Jr., the captain of an oyster-fishing sailboat called a skipjack. Holly Fisher, one of the filmmakers, was enthralled by his independence and his connection to his boat and the water: "a kind of quintessential, spiritual American character . . . he was living out Manifest Destiny."

What they produced was what Fisher calls "a very pure form" of film. Pure, as in: There is no narration, almost no identification of people or places, almost nothing to tell the viewer what the heck they're watching.

That made the film a bit too pure, even for the 1960s: It was screened a few times, and then it spent decades on the shelf in Fisher's TriBeCa loft.

Now unearthed, "Watermen" has beautiful shots of Chesapeake marshes shimmering at dawn, of men singing as they sort oysters, of skipjacks racing past the Bay Bridge. And it even succeeds, by accident, as a work of history. A long swath of Chesapeake race relations is encapsulated in a single scene, where a skipjack's white captain and his black deckhands -- men who lived separate lives off the water -- sing "I'll Fly Away" over a meal in the boat's tiny cabin.

For those who know the bay's history, the scenes of oyster fishing, churchgoing and hanging out in tackle shops can be riveting: The film was shot as a pair of diseases had begun to devastate the bay's oyster population. Now, given the diseases, pollution and overfishing, the Chesapeake oyster beds have been almost wiped out. Just a handful of skipjacks are even working now, and watermen's grandchildren have had to seek work at an Eastern Shore prison.

In many ways, what happened after the cameras stopped rolling was worse than what happened a few years later on the Cuyahoga.

You can see a fire, of course. And you can put it out.

Frontline: Poisoned Waters (two hours) airs tonight at 9 on Channels 22 and 26.

Watermen (one hour) airs Thursday at 9:30 on Channel 22.

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