The Omega Institute's Water of Life Conference and the Fight for Clean Water
The problem, really, is that we in the land of plenty don't actually see water. The vast majority of us turn on faucets and hoses and stand under showers while our minds wander elsewhere—to the outcome of the baseball game or what to cook for dinner. The Water of Life conference, held this past weekend at the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, New York, was a wake-up call of the highest order. (E Magazine, it should be noted, was a co-sponsor of the event). Because while we developed world denizens have been looking elsewhere, corporations worldwide have wrecked our freshwater supplies—through calculated pollution and privatization, through careless industrial farming and fishing, through dumped mining fills and toxic emissions that lace our waterways with mercury, poisoning our fish.
I heard a woman seated behind me mention to her colleague that she hoped the talks wouldn't be too depressing. It was the type of conference you enter with a sort of solemnity, understanding the gravity of the information that's about to land with a thud onto your lap, that you"ll have to carry around, your own personal pile of guilt for asking, and doing, so little. God help those with the misfortune to have brought plastic bottled water into the event.
But the reality of the conference was far more hopeful than any of us might have imagined. This wasn't about lying down and feeling sorry for ourselves—this was about fighting. Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., the chief prosecuting attorney for the Hudson Riverkeeper and president of the Waterkeeper Alliance, has been fighting major polluters his entire life, with the law as his weapon of choice. In some ways, it's been a personal fight, because the Hudson River in New York, the focus of so many of his successful environmental lawsuits, was where he wanted to fish, and boat and take his children—six of them in total—to appreciate the wild banks that have spawned American identity. This river became the dumping ground of the Penn Central Company's oil, of PCBs from the General Electric plant, of paint from the General Motors plant back in the mid-"60s, and it was a group of blue collar fishermen who challenged these companies, one by one, with the law, forming Riverkeeper and patrolling the Hudson to keep polluters on watch.
Citizen groups can work wonders, but when the government undercuts hard-won environmental regulations with industry-friendly pollution policies, as George Bush has done, they face hurdles that can't be jumped. This has been the most environmentally atrocious White House in history. "There have been over 400 environmental rollbacks," Kennedy told the audience at Omega, calling Bush's policies "a stealth attack to undo 30 years of environmental legislation."
"There are polluters in virtually every office that is supposed to protect us from pollution," he went on. "Not just lobbyists for polluters, but the worst actors in these industries." One example: Phillip Cooney, a lawyer and lobbyist for the American Petroleum Institute who became chief of staff of the Council on Environmental Quality under Bush. He was later outed for heavily editing climate change reports to downplay threats.
There were other fighters at the conference, too, like Dr. John Todd, creator of the eco-machine—the most ingenious way to turn wastewater into usable freshwater, by using local organisms and plants to do the filtering in a series of large connected tanks. His fight is personal, too. "The healing of water started as a childhood fantasy," said Todd, who recently won the Buckminster Fuller award for ecological design. He lived near a place called Salmon Creek in Canada, where salmon no longer swam. "I would daydream about how one day we can bring the salmon back."
Todd has thought to look to nature for answers to the problems man has created. Toxic, industrial-level pollutants are destroying water bodies all over the world, as cancer rates climb and 6,000 children a day die from lack of safe drinking water. But Todd's eco-machine, a self-contained system that uses local organisms to filter the water mimics, he says, "the plants that thrived in the earliest life on Earth, when there was no oxygen." Within weeks, these connected tanks were overflowing with lush, green plants and after 12 ½ days, in his first major test of the project—using the armored catfish in the last tank as a final vacuum cleaner—toxic sludge became crystal clear water with all primary pollutants 100% removed. "From an engineering perspective," says Todd, "there's nothing simpler."
So why aren't eco-machines cleaning toxic water around the world? Why do we continue to instead treat wastewater with industrial-level chemicals? "Technologically," said Todd, "we don't have to look beyond [the eco-machine] to solve the problems that cause millions of deaths a year. I don't know the disconnect."
He was not thinking about profits, of course, he was thinking about people, the planet, the future and quality of life on earth.
BRITA BELLI is the editor of E.