Friday, October 15, 2010

It's The Ecology, Stupid!

Although the brunch took place nearly 35 years ago, I remember the moment with frightening clarity. I was sitting with some friends who were entertaining visitors from Los Angeles when one of the Los Angelenos smugly stated "You people here in San Francisco are crazy. You should just level all of those hills and build out into the Bay!"

Having only arrived in San Francisco in 1972 and been awed by the beauty of the local topography, I was shocked by the woman's callous disregard for nature. What I did not know was that, in the 1950s and 1960s, developers were desperately trying to reclaim land with such a frenzy that San Francisco Bay might have been reduced to a shadow of its former self.

Earlier this month, San Francisco's KQED premiered the first two installments of a four-hour, four-part series narrated by Robert Redford that will be aired nationwide on PBS stations in the Spring of 2011. As a community service, the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco recently offered a free preview of the entire four-hour series entitled Saving The Bay.

Written by Miles Saunders and produced by Ron Blatman (with some stunning cinematography by Kit Tyler),
Saving the Bay is not your typical nature documentary. While it examines the geological changes that have shaped San Francisco Bay from the last Ice Age until the present, it also focuses on the Bay's unfortunate years of exploitation as people thoughtlessly dumped all kinds of garbage and sewage into its waters.

Hailed as the second most important estuary in the United States (after Chesapeake Bay), San Francisco Bay has continually made history. Did you know that:

Saving The Bay chronicles man's impact on San Francisco Bay over the past 350 years. It covers a period from when the Bay area boasted a wealth of untouched marshes and wetlands to the Bay's transformation into a world-class port for container ships. Most important, it shows how the efforts of three pioneering and well-connected women to save San Francisco Bay transformed the region -- and our nation -- into a more environmentally conscious society.

Each of the following hyperlinks takes readers to free study guides devised to provide more information for those who view Saving the Bay.
  • Marvel of Nature (Prehistory-1848) describes the geological history of the Bay, its early inhabitants, and shows how the Gold Rush changed the Bay's importance to California and the nation.
  • Harbor of Harbors (1849-1906) shows how the sudden spectacular growth following the Gold Rush turned San Francisco into a major economic center for the Pacific Ocean and, partly due to the building of the Transcontinental Railroad, introduced new species to the environment. It discusses the Chinese shrimp fishery, the oaks of Oakland, and the dangerous introduction of mercury into the Bay's waters as a result of mining activities.
  • Miracle Workers (1906-1959) depicts how the Great Earthquake and Fire of 1906 sent much of the population over to the East Bay. It also details the first water redistribution projects, the erection of San Francisco Bay's two world-famous bridges, the critical role the Richmond Shipyards played in World War II, and the early attempts to fill in large portions of the Bay.
  • Bay in the Balance (1960-Present) follows the birth of the Save The Bay campaign in the 1960s, which led to the birth of a national movement for conservation, environmental preservation, ecological social networking, and smarter urban planning.
If you're the kind of environmentalist, history buff, or Bay area resident who doesn't want to wait until Saving The Bay is shown next spring on PBS, you can purchase the DVD for $40 here.  In the meantime, here's the official trailer:

* * * * * * * * * *
While environmentalists are often mocked by comedians like Stephen Colbert (see below), many people still struggling against corporate agendas which have wrecked havoc on their communities.

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Tiny Triumphs - Environmentalist Ear Pollution
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All one has to do is watch On Coal River (soon to be screened at DocFest 2010), to grasp the deleterious side effects of mountaintop removal mining and realize what could have happened to San Francisco Bay without the growth and perseverance of the Save The Bay campaign.

The Coal River Valley of southern West Virginia is home to some of the oldest mountains in the world.
  • The area's coal reserves currently provide nearly 50% of domestic electricity.
  • Mountaintop removal and other forms of steep-slope strip mining are estimated to have destroyed over 500,000 acres of land and buried 1500 miles of streams. 
  • New mining and processing methods have taken a heavy toll on the valley’s environment and the health of its residents.(After extraction, the mine plants crush and chemically “wash” the coal to remove toxins before pumping the waste into large man-made lakes or old, abandoned mine shafts).
One of the area's biggest employers is Massey Energy, the largest producer of coal in Central Appalachia and the fourth largest producer of coal in the United States. That's the same corporation whose long history of environmental and safety violations includes a 300-million gallon spill of toxic sludge in October of 2000. On April 5, 2010, an explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine in Montcoal, West Virginia, caused 29 deaths.

Meanwhile, residents in the area of mountaintop removal operations have suffered increased levels of cancer, discovered that it is no longer safe to drink or bathe in the local water, and stood by helplessly as their children's blood tests revealed shockingly high levels of heavy metals.

On Coal River focuses on the efforts of four Appalachian residents:
  • Bo Webb is a former Marine who grew up in the area and returned home to see the devastation wrought by Massey Energy.
  • Maria Lambert connected the dots between rising levels of illness in the neighborhood and Massey's neglectful contamination of the local water supply.
  • Ed Wiley is a former coal miner whose granddaughter attends Marsh Fork Elementary, a school threatened by the toxic waste facility where he used to work. As part of his activism, Wiley walked 425 miles to the nation's capital to meet with the late Senator Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia. His goal? To have his granddaughter's school relocated to safer ground.
  • Judy Bonds was forced to leave her home after a nearby mining operation sent dangerous black water into the creek in which her grandson loved to play.

Ed Wiley meeting with the late Senator Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia

Directed by Francine Cavanaugh and Adams Wood, On Coal River offers a sobering view of how corporate interests place profits above people and have the political system in a tight grip. As filmmaker Adams Wood notes:
"We really had no idea that this film would be a six-year project -- all along the way, we felt this huge amount of pressure to finish the film and get it out to the world. People kept telling us - now is the time, it'll never be more relevant than it is now. We kept holding out for clear endings that seemed to be perpetually just around the corner. Bo used to joke that the title should be 'The Never-Ending Story.'
We finally edited together an ending that we were happy with, and we had two really dramatic developments -- the first being the Upper Big Branch mine tragedy that happened in Coal River Valley. That was really awful to see, and it underscored the sacrifice so many people in Coal River make -- regardless of what side they are on of a particular issue. The other development was an ending we had been waiting and hoping for since the early days of the project, and it was amazing to see it happen literally weeks before our premiere date."
On Coal River doesn't deny that the chips are stacked against the residents of Coal River Valley. Nor is there any escaping the fact that these people are fighting for their lives -- as well as to preserve their region's ecology. Here's the trailer:

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