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October 2, 1997

Walking on Water

Sometimes everything I read begins to point in the same direction, toward a feature of the general mental landscape that I've hardly noticed before. It's like walking through the woods on a late summer afternoon when, from all sides, animals follow long-established trails toward a familiar watering hole. The tiny pond where they congregate, half-hidden by surrounding shrubbery, has escaped human attention for years. Suddenly it assumes startling importance, and I realize that this little puddle is what makes possible the survival of an entire region. So too, I find, the convergence of news items can give vital significance to subjects that I have previously ignored or taken for granted.

Last week the SF Weekly reported that the site where the new Giants stadium is scheduled for construction is saturated --- like much of the southern waterfront --- with toxic materials. Remains of earlier industrial activity in the area, chemicals such as lead, mercury, arsenic, and a coal tar effusion known as BTEX (benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylene) have seeped into the soil. Over time, they are being absorbed into the groundwater, which gradually drains destructively into the bay, threatening the lives of the fish that inhabit it and the people who eat them.

Last month the San Francisco Chronicle  probed the problems connected with a chemical known as MTBE (methyl tertiary butyl ether), which has been added to gasoline in California since 1990, in accord with federal law, to cut down smog from car exhausts. Because over time the giant underground tanks where this gasoline is stored --- like many other containers --- develop leaks, carcinogens have been oozing into the surrounding soil. Swept along by the groundwater, they have made their way into wells and lakes, contaminating water in some places to a point where it is unsafe to drink.

During the past few months people in the Chesapeake Bay region have noticed the arrival of a mysterious new pestilence. Fishing has come to a standstill in some areas because of the appearance of fish with huge lesions, as if a piranha had bitten a chunk out of their sides. Fishermen in the same areas complain of respiratory problems and frightening bouts of memory loss. Scientists searching for the source of the strange infection suspect it comes from an organism that thrives in water with an unusually high level of nutrients. In part, these nutrients (phosphorus and nitrogen) pour directly into the bay from wastewater treatment plants and factories. But they also dissolve in the groundwater many miles and many states away, particularly in hog- or chicken-farming regions, and make their way to the bay over a period of years.

Over the past decade residents of southeastern Washington state have looked with horror at lives and health ruined by the release of radioactive materials at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation since its establishment during World War II. Chemical separation plants poured noxious gases into the air from their smokestacks. Facilities recycled water used for cleaning or cooling nuclear reactors back into the Columbia River. In addition, billions of gallons of water contaminated by processing plutonium were dumped into the earth on the spot, merging with the groundwater; millions of gallons of radioactive waste also entered the soil from underground tanks that had sprung massive leaks.

Fertilizer-flooded groundwater from the irrigated Central Valley flowing into wells. Tritium-laced fog merging with the groundwater near the Lawrence Berkeley Lab. Leaks from nuclear waste deposits in Beatty, Nevada, and fears of similar dangers at a proposed dump in Ward Valley, California, where radiated groundwater would head toward the Colorado River. One word, and one theme, lies just beneath the surface of all these accounts --- groundwater.

Like the designers of the Hanford facility, and like every sailor who has dumped his garbage overboard, we tend to assume that water washes all. But when it's dirty, who will cleanse the cleaner? A number of groups are trying: analyzing and detoxifying toxic sites has become big business. Nevertheless, the earth can only swallow the vile concoctions we pour into it for so long before becoming terminally ill itself.

Somehow we have acquired a mistaken impression about the earth we walk on. We seem to visualize it as a solid mass, instead of the churning carp pond of aquifers it actually is. We seem to have forgotten the simple hydrology lesson that Miss McNulty tried to drum into our heads in fifth grade: lakes and oceans evaporate; clouds precipitate onto the earth; the soil soaks up each new supply of rain or snow. Water stored beneath the surface --- yes, the groundwater --- seeks lower-lying bodies of water, swooping up bits of everything it touches as it surrenders to gravity. The process never ends.

A good 50 percent of the water we drink comes from groundwater. Knowing what we've poured into it, do you really want to drink it?

-- Copyright Betsey Culp 1997

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