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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Cape Cod Cranberries: A Bitter Harvest

Air Date: Week of October 17, 1997

The Pilgrims settled near Cape Cod in Massachusetts more than three and a half centuries ago, and at the first Thanksgiving feast, they ate cranberries plucked from local bogs. The cranberry harvest remains a New England tradition. Each Fall, tourists flock to watch the vibrant red berries bob atop fields of bright blue water. But, last month, Massachusetts health officials found traces of a suspected carcinogen in more than a dozen Cape cranberry bogs. The chemical, ethylene di-bromide, was found in aviation fuel dumped decades ago at a military base on the Cape. The contamination is ruining some cranberry harvests and renewing worries about the region's water supply. Living On Earth's Liz Lempert reports.

Transcript

KNOY: This is Living on Earth. I'm Laura Knoy.
The Pilgrims settled near Cape Cod in Massachusetts more than 3 and a half centuries ago. And at the first Thanksgiving feast they ate cranberries plucked from local bogs. The cranberry harvest remains a New England tradition. Each fall tourists flock to watch the vibrant red berries bob atop fields of bright blue water. But last month Massachusetts health officials found traces of a suspected carcinogen in more than a dozen Cape cranberry bogs. The chemical, ethylene dibromide, was found in aviation fuel dumped decades ago at a military base on the Cape. The contamination is ruining some cranberry harvests and renewing worries about the region's water supply. Living on Earth's Liz Lempert reports.

(Water splashing; voices in background)

LEMPERT: At Palmer Mill Bog, workers gather cranberries inside a floating corral of wooden planks. Doug Beaton is a fifth generation cranberry grower. This land of his is untouched by the ethylene dibromide streaming down from the Massachusetts military reservation. But he's still upset.

(Loud machinery in the background)

BEATON: I just think it's a shame. You know, we work here very hard to have clean fruit and keep the environment as clean as it should be, and somehow we've got to get that groundwater cleaned up. Sooner the better, before it gets way out of control, if it isn't already.

LEMPERT: The Department of Public Health has found ethylene dibromide, a suspected carcinogen, on cranberry crops worth $750,000. Eighty-five contaminated acres in all, less than 1% of the cranberry acreage on the Cape. Grower Doug Beaton says the real impact of the pollution has been obscured.

(Machinery in background)

BEATON: It's the smokescreen kind of transporting it onto the cranberries, and we're not going to use the cranberries until they are safe to use. But the real issue is the quality of the groundwater on the Cape.

LEMPERT: And groundwater is drinking water here. In the past 11 years, close to 600 households had to abandon their private wells and switch to town water because their wells were contaminated or threatened by pollution from the base.

(A motor revs up, struggles)

LEMPERT: Two streams of EDB contamination flow south from the military base. One oozes into the Coonemesset River in Falmouth. The other flows east of that into the town of Mashpee. Paul Zanous is a citizen member of the Environmental Protection Agency's Base Review Team. He's also head mechanic at Cape Cod Flying Service. He cranks up his creaky 3-seater to give me a bird's eye view of the contaminated sites.

(Loud motors)

ZANOUS: Cape Cod traffic Cessna's departing 2-7. (Motor gets louder) Here we go!

LEMPERT: Below, crystal lakes dot the wooded landscape. Cape Cod, the jagged arm of southeastern Massachusetts, sits on top of 300 feet of sand and gravel. The poor soil soaks up rain water like a giant sponge. It also absorbs contaminants. Chemicals quickly seep into this aquifer, and like smoke billowing out of a smokestack, they slowly dissipate, forming underground plumes that can stretch miles long. A dozen of these chemical plumes spread south from the military base.

(Loud motors)

ZANOUS: We're heading directly towards the end of the runway.

LEMPERT: We fly over the base and circle an old runway. This is where the Mashpee plume begins. From the 1950s to the 1970s, military personnel dumped as much as 6 million gallons of fuel containing the additive ethylene dibromide.

ZANIS: Now there's a road that goes down to the runways. They dumped fuel all in there. You can see it, it goes right down into here, gets Moody Pond there, the cranberry bogs, the new high school here, the elementary school here. These schools are surrounded with plumes.

LEMPERT: Mr. Zanous turns the plane west, and we fly over the Falmouth plume. Here, ethylene dibromide has surfaced in the Coonemesset River.

ZANOUS: This is a beautiful little village, little quaint, little back country area, all these homes, you know, scattered. It couldn't be a worse situation.

(Loud motors fade to tumbling, then spilling sounds on metal)

LEMPERT: Gail MacRay lives in one of these Falmouth homes. She fills a teakettle with water delivered to her door by the US Air Force. Since last year the military has been bringing Ms. McCrae jugs of bottled water for drinking and cooking. The Air Force has also paid to connect Ms. MacRay and her neighbors to the uncontaminated town water, but she's still waiting to be hooked up. In the meantime she's had to use her well water to wash clothes and to shower. The fuel additive was found in her well last July, but since then it's tested clean.

MacRAY: Well, I think about, Jeez, I wonder if that's a different smell, or I wonder if, you know, it could be coming through now and I could be bathing. So I do, I try to take really quick showers. You know, my brother's children are there, they used to spend a lot of time in my home and they're, like, 3 years old. I don't want them here now, because I don't want to be responsible for something to happen to them.

LEMPERT: Ms. MacRay clutches a blanket around her shoulders and sits at her kitchen table with her neighbor, Jackie Chatterton-Wyatt.

CHATTERTON-WYATT: I don't feel safe here.

LEMPERT: Breast cancer rates in Cape Cod are 23% higher than the national average. Ms. Chatterton-Wyatt was treated for the disease 7 years ago. She worries about her family's health, and she wants to move away from the house she and her husband built. But that prospect is devastating.

CHATTERTON-WYATT: When I look (begins to cry; MacRay says soothing words in the background) when I look at the French doors in my living room I can see that's where my husband and I stood when we got married. When I go upstairs into the bedroom, that's the room where my babies were born. And I just don't feel it's a safe place any more.

(A door shuts)

CARSON The groundwater pool of EDB on the other side of the road is about 120 feet below ground surface. As we walk down this way toward the extraction well, it gets to about 100 feet below ground surface.

LEMPERT: Up the street from the MacRay and Chatterton-Wyatt homes, Doug Carson from the Air Force Environmental Cleanup Office shows me a new treatment well. This rig pumps up 600 gallons of contaminated water a minute. The water will be filtered through carbon, then discharged into the Coonemesset River.

CARSON: Our computer modeling shows that this will effectively capture 80% of the plume and, you know, the question is what about the other 20%? What we need to do is operate this one for a period of time so we can monitor how effective the system is, so we can situate additional extraction wells out here.

(Beeping sounds)

LEMPERT: The solution is not perfect. Twenty percent of the plume won't be captured with this technology. Plus, part of the plume has already traveled south of the treatment well. That pollution will flow down the Coonemesset River, then empty into Vineyard Sound. At a travel rate of 1 to 2 feet per day, Mr. Carson predicts it will be decades before the entire plume passes through the treatment point. Some Cape residents think this isn't good enough, but Dennis LeBlanc, a water specialist with the US Geological Survey, says it's difficult to do much better.

LeBLANC: It's sort of like trying to squeeze ink out of a sponge. You know, every time you squeeze it there's still an awful lot of ink coming out, and it just never seems to end. And there's a little bit of that problem in groundwater.

LEMPERT: There is plenty of water under the Cape, and if the 2 EDB plumes were the only sources of pollution, wells could be moved to more pristine areas. But there's a dozen plumes spreading south from the base, carrying solvents, fuel, and sewage. Ironically, one of the largest available areas for sinking new wells is on the north side of the base. Town officials had hoped to find an untapped source of clean water there. But recent tests show that water is tainted with explosives. In a landmark action last spring, the EPA ordered the military to close down its firing range on the north side because of suspected water pollution. Homeowner Gail MacRay thinks even more should be done.

(Crows in the background)

MacRAY: You know, I think that the Cape is just so fragile, and it's very unfortunate. And that's why I don't think the base should be there, you know, because I don't think that they're trustworthy.

LEMPERT: Ms. MacRay and other citizens are mounting an effort to close down the base entirely. But others fear that if the military goes, there will be no one left to finish the cleanup. Falmouth residents will vote on a non-binding ballot measure in November. For Living on Earth, this is Liz Lempert.

 

 

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