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Deep Cleaning

Photo of Tim Nelson

When thirty-six-year-old Tim Nelson got a call from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers this spring, he already knew it was serious. It's always serious. As a hazmat (hazardous materials)-trained scuba diver, Nelson makes a living plunging into heavily polluted rivers, where he has, for example, swum through raw sewage and pulp-mill effluent to check on leaking pipes. But this job was particularly risky.

The corps representatives told him that tissue samples taken from clams and crawfish in Oregon's Columbia River showed PCB levels up to 7,500 times the acceptable limits for human consumption. Some 800 feet upstream from the intakes of the Bonneville Dam lay the source of the problem: forty years' worth of decaying and deadly PCB-filled electrical equipment, the forgotten remains of an old Army Corps landfill. Since most of the toxic wreckage lay 60 feet underwater, army officials needed Nelson's employer, the Oregon City-based scuba company Advanced American Diving, to help them get rid of it. "We treated it as a worst-case scenario," says Nelson.

As the monitoring of U.S. waterways becomes more rigorous, the need for hazmat divers is on the rise. Since 1980, more than 400 people have graduated from the Environmental Protection Agency's hazmat scuba school in Gulf Breeze, Florida, where divers also learn the skills needed to work on scientific projects, such as measuring the progression of coral diseases or the growth of sea grass. But not every job is so pacific. Take the unhappy 1990 discovery of 1,163 decaying drums of toxic chemicals in a quarry near Kokomo, Indiana. EPA and Coast Guard divers found every one. Or the case of the Alaskan seafood processors who were heaving mounds of leftover fish heads and innards into the ocean. EPA cold-water divers gathered the evidence that led to nearly $700,000 in fines and tighter dumping regulations.

For the PCB job, Nelson and his seven-man team deployed underwater video cameras to map the site and brought in a barge and crane for heavy lifting. To eliminate any chance of skin exposure, they wore specially made neoprene drysuits, gloves, and hard hoods, and employed the utmost "decon" protocol, which includes high-pressure, post-dive wash-downs. Over two weeks they hauled more than 40 cubic yards of debris from the river, about enough to cover a football field's end zone a foot deep.

While the removal of the debris seems to be complete, the river's shellfish won't be PCB-free for a long time. Through a process called biomagnification, PCBs remain in the food chain for years and, in addition to causing bacterial infections and liver lesions in animals, are a probable human carcinogen. When the corps tests the invertebrates again in August, it hopes to find that PCB levels have declined.

In the meantime, Oregonians should count themselves lucky. There aren't many who would choose to handle toxics and swim through sludge, but Nelson is into his job. Asked if he plans to continue in his line of work, Nelson's reply was automatic. "Oh yeah, you bet," he replied. "I love it."
-- Christian DeBenedetti

Mixed Messages

Ford commercial What's going on at Ford? First the company trumpets an ambitious plan to make its SUVs 25 percent more fuel efficient by 2005. Then it ousts its CEO, replaces him with Ford scion William Clay Ford, Jr. (just call him Bill), and now seems to be backpedaling from its much heralded commitment. Ford commercial A television campaign launched last February features Bill talking "candidly" about himself and the cars he makes. The SUV ad is a real doozy, showing not only what's become standard fare in SUV marketing (impossibly steep mountain roads, people sinking their teeth into the great outdoors), but also some poetic touches (galloping horses, an oddly incongruous dew-laden spider's web) and the rather Ford commercial implausible assertion that, by rambling around the countryside in his Model T, Bill's great-grandfather (yes, Henry) "sort of invented SUVs."

The strange thing is, Bill Ford comes to his position with more than a few bona fide enviro credentials, including a very public admission that the automobile has had "a major negative impact" on the environment. Yet last year Ford killed a plan to Ford commercial introduce gas-saving hybrid technology to its Explorer, and while the company says it still stands by its promise, Bill Ford is on TV informing us that "SUVs are what people want." Now that's what we call driving the market.
-- Jason Best

Photo of Cheshire, Ohio

For a company with $61 billion in annual revenues, $20 million is a drop in the bucket. That's what the nation's largest utility, American Electric Power, is paying to buy Cheshire, Ohio, a town next to an AEP plant that burns 25,000 tons of high-sulfur coal each day. In exchange for the checks, Cheshire's 221 residents will pack up and go -- and have agreed not to sue AEP for health problems. What the deal does not address are the fates of the local schools and ballfields. In a recent ad in the Nature Conservancy's magazine, AEP boasts of "providing wildlife habitat on our properties." People, apparently, are another matter.

Who would have thought that a group whose mascot is the lethargic, paunchy panda bear would be able to smack down the violence-prone, Lycra-clad men and women of the World Wrestling Federation? That's what happened last February, albeit in the civilized confines of the British High Court, which ruled that the marketing rights to the initials WWF belong not to the wrestling group (which had emblazoned them on everything from T-shirts to a Times Square eatery), but to the World Wildlife Fund (which had emblazoned them on everything from T-shirts to canvas tote bags). In a statement, WWF -- now the only WWF -- said the wrestling group's repeated use of the initials "diluted and tarnished" its brand identity. The former WWF plans to spend up to $50 million to change its name to World Wrestling Entertainment.

Illustration of panda and wrestler

Photos: Deep Cleaning, John Gress; See Ya, Cheshire, Doral Chenoweth III/The Columbus Dispatch; Mixed Messages, Courtesy of Ford Motor Company
Illustration: WWF, Robert Grossman

OnEarth. Summer 2002
Copyright 2002 by the Natural Resources Defense Council