How We Can Save the Salish Sea

Since January 2014, Whatcom Watch has been rerunning articles from issues printed 20 years ago. The below article appeared in the August 2001 issue of Whatcom Watch.
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I was recently asked to give the League of Women Voters a talk about water quality and the state. I intended to simply talk about various indicators of ecosystem health, such as plummeting herring populations, contaminated Orca whales, and loss of spawning habitat for forage fish.

But, as I sat to write my notes for the talk, it morphed. I think I may have caught a few of the women at the league a bit off-guard. I may even have shocked one or two of them, but that’s whats needed these days. We must start to stand up and be willing to talk about what we see happening around us, even if that means that we shock someone or get labeled as “not nice.”

Some of the women at the league asked me to get my talk to a wider audience. So here is my update on the state of the bay, modified for publication and to make note of recent events.

Five Million Gallons Per Day
The state of Bellingham Bay may be changing, given the recent closure of the Georgia-Pacific pulp mill. The mill once discharged approximately 29 million gallons of wastewater into the bay each day. Now it discharges five million gallons per day. The nature of the discharge is less toxic, too, as there are little to no chlorinated compounds being used at the mill. That means no more dioxin, no more furans, no more chloroform.

Ambient water quality in the bay is relatively good. Because of the influence of the Nooksack River, a lot of fresh water is carried into the bay, mixing with marine waters coming in from Rosario Strait at the mouth of the bay.

The relatively clean marine water does dilute pollutants entering the bay directly, through industrial discharges and stormwater, and those that are borne into the bay in the waters of the Nooksack, Little Squalicum, Squalicum, Whatcom, and Padden creeks.

River Sediments Interrupt Navigation
The Nooksack River is a very important influence on the bay, as it brings high volumes of fresh water as well as another influence: sediments. Each year, the river deposits an estimated 526,000 cubic yards of sediment into the bay. This, of course, has enormous impacts, not only for the biology of the bay, but also for the human economy that depends upon shipping channels for commerce.

The sediments deposited by the Nooksack River are now shoaling in the Whatcom Waterway, and they are beginning to interrupt navigation. This, of course, leads to the issue that has galvanized public and government agency attention for the past four years. If we are to maintain our federal navigation channels, they must be dredged.

Mercury Is Toxic Legacy
But there is a toxic legacy lurking in the old marine sediments: approximately 26,000 pounds of mercury lie at the bottom of our bay. So, an army of local, state, and federal agencies are working to develop a plan for how to dredge and dispose of these sediments. I will not belabor you with another re-telling of my concerns about this process.

It should be pointed out that the vast majority of these contaminated sediment sites are historic legacies. Indeed, Georgia-Pacific did finally stop discharging mercury into our bay after a mere 33 years of privatizing profits while socializing costs. With the recent closure of the mill’s pulping operation, now more than ever, the issues surrounding the toxicity of its discharges are relegated to the realm of past practice. Now we are left to containment and remediation strategies.

Continuing Threats to Marine Ecosystem
And we are left looking at the other impacts to the marine ecosystem that are ongoing. What are the greatest threats to the marine ecosystem that are occurring now? That, in 30, 50 or 100 years, we will look to, shaking our heads with remorse?

Sadly, there are many such threats. But I think that, for now, I’ll choose to explore the issue of the large volume of contaminated stormwater issuing from homes, businesses, industries, farms, logging sites, roads, shopping malls, and their acres of parking lots.

Nonpoint Pollution
Stormwater pollution, what a funny name – it sounds as if the storms rain down pollution. Another name for it is nonpoint pollution. That’s an odd name too, when you consider the fact that there is a point, or a source, for every drop of pollution. It comes from my car, from your lawn, from that parking lot

I comment on every pollution discharge permit granted to facilities in Whatcom and Skagit counties. And there are a lot of them – over a hundred in just these two counties, and almost a thousand for the state. But all of these facilities added together do not contribute as much pollution to Puget Sound as you and me.

It is individuals, with their cars and the miles and miles of pavement that they require. It is the aphid death that we spray on our roses and the slug bait we put out to protect our strawberries. It is the slavish devotion to our lawns. It is our mindlessly driving our cars when a bicycle would do.

The Enemy Is Us
It is our need to drive to a shopping mall to buy new baubles whenever we do not feel fulfilled. It is the trail of pollution that we leave behind ourselves each time that we drive, or buy, or spray, or flush. That is the real challenge facing Puget Sound, facing the natural world. We have met the enemy, and she is us.

Our population is forever growing. This means more houses, more cars, more roads for these cars, more oil drilling to support the cars, more lawns, more pesticides to keep those lawns weed-free, more office buildings, more dams and perhaps even nuclear power plants to power those office buildings, and what seems to me to be an ever increasing number of places to buy the same pointless gewgaws.

Culture of Consumption
All of this is, of course, driven by the culture of consumption to which we abdicate our personal power. It is driven by ever hungrier corporations and their perfect tool – television. These days, many companies point to their environmental record to show that they are good neighbors, good stewards of the environment.

And certainly, many corporations have substantially cleaned up their act, in this country at least. But, in many ways this is a facade covering the real issue – that corporations make their way in the world by encouraging practices that are fundamentally unsustainable.

The corporations that are consolidating their grip of power over economy, culture, environment, and freedom make their riches by making and selling things that we consume. That might be a product, a service, information, or most disturbingly, culture.

We no longer make our own culture, we no longer enjoy some of the most fundamental aspects of humanity, such as deeply connecting with others, engaging in the creative process, making music, thinking, or embarking on profound spiritual exploration. Instead, we sit back and let the corporations fill our ever-hungry maws with more and more empty calories.

American Attitude Exported
Of course, this is the perfect system because all of the baubles that we could ever buy will not satisfy our cravings for connection, for quality, for an authentic relationship with ourselves, with others, with the natural world. I have a friend who believes that government is preparing a police state, and, if we are not careful, there will be tanks in the streets. I tell him: that is not necessary, because our culture has developed the perfect system of societal control – the twin devils of television and consumerism.

It is not necessarily what comes out of the discharge pipe that is causing the degradation of marine ecosystems – it is the culture of consumerism. It is the expectation that we must all have big houses, big cars, televisions in every room, meat on our plate every day, and the ability to buy whatever we want, whenever we want.

And this very American attitude is being exported by the corporate media, because it is the only way they can continue their ever expanding corporate growth. The American way is not about truth and freedom; it is the cultural ideology of consumerism. Anyone who has traveled to other places in the world knows how absurd this is. Our appetites are so much bigger than those of any other country.

Americans Gobble Natural Resources
In this country, for example, we consume 30 percent more electricity than any other country in the world. We gobble many times the natural resources per capita than any other nation. And to think that we can export these appetites without extreme consequences for the environment (or for ourselves) is akin to hiding our heads in the contaminated sand.

Community Discourse Devoid of Respect
Not only do we see the consequences of our consumption in the form of environmental and cultural degradation, but we also see it in our community discourse and politics. I attend a lot of community meetings. I often don’t say much, but observe the way my fellow community members express their concerns and values. Increasingly, what I see is a community discourse that is devoid of respect.

Often, I see young people express their concerns in a manner that is not particularly factually correct or that asks larger questions, such as those surrounding the tradeoff between profit and health. Many other community members chuckle and shake their heads, or try to discount or invalidate the young people.

For their part, more conservative community members spout the same tired rhetoric, which causes the “liberals” to scoff. No one is trying to hear beneath the rhetoric. Many of the people who are judged as being antigrowth are simply expressing a profound unease that perhaps even they do not fully understand. They see the degradation and they feel the disconnection and are sometimes at a loss to express this articulately or in a manner that the more conservative elements of the community can hear and understand.

The conservative element relies on that tired rhetoric because they also have fear. Their fear is that perhaps we really have been sold a bill of goods. That maybe it is true that each generation cannot be better off than the last. That land is finite, that the natural world is finite and grudgingly surrenders its treasures for us to squander. And, if this is true, they reason, they had best get their piece of the pie for themselves and their children before everyone realizes that this bitter pie has been over allocated.

The issue of stormwater itself may not be the greatest threat to Puget Sound, but I think that it is emblematic of the larger issue of corporate control and the loss of authentic culture. These are the greatest threats to environmental integrity that I see. And, until we seriously address this issue, we will be, as a friend used to say, “polishing the bright work while the ship burns down.”

This may seem like a gloomy interpretation of today’s state of affairs, but in a way, this view also provides the promise. Because, we can change this. We can save Puget Sound. We can save the last remaining tall grass prairies. We can save our oceans and our rain forests. We can save what is authentic and good about our culture and the cultures of the world.

Just Say No
All we have to do is say no. All we have to do is turn off the television and say no to the corporate-created culture. We can simply stop buying what we don’t need, stop participating in the rape and pillage of the precious and finite natural world, and stop giving permission for the rape and pillage of our own minds and souls. And then, we can engage in the empowering exercise of working to put it back.

We can restore our streams, carve out new wetlands, rebuild a natural shoreline, rebuild community, and make our own culture rather than accepting the flimsy placebo prescribed by institutionalized global capitalism. The answer to our water quality problems is a close as our own minds.

We can take back our minds, empty them of the garbage that has been dumped into them, like so many contaminated disposal sites, fill them with art, culture, community and the natural world, and to a great extent, the Salish Sea will take care of itself.  

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When this article was written, Robyn duPre was the North Sound Baykeeper for the environmental organization RE Sources.

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