So You Want to Learn About the Environment? - The Missourian: Feature Stories

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Posted: Saturday, July 19, 2014 6:32 pm | Updated: 8:34 am, Mon Jul 21, 2014.

Local residents who like to play on the Missouri River, whether it’s boating or fishing, are probably familiar with Asian carp, sometimes referred to as flying fish because of their tendency to jump out of the water when they get disturbed by boats or even rainfall.

“If you talk to any fishermen on the Missouri River, I’m sure they’ve had their encounters,” said Don Corrigan, longtime editor of the Webster-Kirkwood Times and author of the new book, “Environmental Missouri, Issues and Sustainability, What You Need to Know.”

“They are an extremely aggressive fish,” he said, speaking from personal experience. “They sometimes will follow you on your boat . . . They have been known to hit motors, change the direction of a boat. They have been known to break people’s noses. They’ve knocked people out of their boats. Just Google Asian carp, and you’ll get some stories.”

The fish, which was imported from Southeast Asia in the 1970s as a way to clean algae in commercial catfish ponds, now thrives in 23 states and is disrupting the ecology of rivers everywhere, including this area.

“They are a tremendous threat to sport fishing and they take over,” said Corrigan. “The reason they were brought over here is because they are top feeders, not bottom feeders, so they were brought for the sewage lagoons, to eat the algae. But they didn’t think about what would happen during a flood when they got loose and into the rivers.

“Now the Illinois River, which is part of the Missouri and Mississippi watershed, they estimate that 60 to 80 percent of the biomass in that river is Asian carp,” said Corrigan.

If you’ve never heard of Asian carp or have but aren’t sure why you should be concerned about them, Corrigan gives you the details on this and dozens of other environmental issues in his new book.

The 242-page soft cover breaks down information into six sections: land issues, clean water issues, clean air issues, toxins, state/national issues and examples of sustainability.

The chapters within each section — rails to trails programs like the Katy, damage done by ATVs, E. coli in the Lake of the Ozarks and area creeks/streams, endangered Ozark riverways, sulfur dioxide, the nuclear burial ground at Weldon Spring, the Times Beach dioxin spread and cleanup, coal ash and the plant in Labadie, to name a few — provide brief descriptions of an issue, a little background and other relevant information.

Each is just five pages long, including a Q&A written by experts and activities in these fields, as well as notes and a list of additional readings.

If you’re wanting to amp up your knowledge of environmental issues, particularly those that affect Missouri, Corrigan’s book is a comprehensive source.

In fact, he wrote it, in large part, to use as a supplement in the environmental journalism classes he teaches at Webster University. Corrigan’s two previous books, “Show-Me Natural Wonders” and “Show-Me Nature’s Wrath” also are used in the courses.

They’re not really academic books, Corrigan is quick to point out. They are easy to read and full of interesting information, minus the kind of scientific “jibberish” that can bog readers down.

“The writing is breezy,” he commented. “I don’t want people’s eyes to glaze over after the second paragraph.”

One thing that isn’t in the book is a chapter on global warming, which surprises many people.

“A lot of these issues contribute to global warming . . . There is a chapter on sulfer dioxide and mercury contamination . . . all of that is related to greenhouse emissions and what’s going on,” said Corrigan.

Turning Lemons Into Lemonade

Any information on environmental issues can easily come across as all doom and gloom, but Corrigan highlights some bright spots as well, ways people are trying to “turn lemons into lemonade.”

With the Asian carp, for example, there is a plan to build a factory in the Alton/Grafton area to process the fish, to make them into fillets, flash freeze them and send them back to China, because the Chinese view them as a delicacy, said Corrigan.

While the shipping that’s involved in the plan leaves a large carbon footpring, “it’s still a good use of what Americans consider to be a trash fish that nobody will eat,” he said.

Corrigan’s last section on sustainability is all about highlighting the good things that are going on around the state — cloth diaper parties, growth of “green” houses, growing use of alternative energy, rain gardens and rain barrels, “green” burials and green education and how Missouri has “no shortage of educators motivated to get kids into the woods for some outdoor learning.”

One five-page chapter is devoted to the efforts of Jim McHugh and the multi-faceted project known as the “Pacific Ring” which is searching for sustainability ideas and trying to find ways to get more cooperation between all sides.

One venture they are working on is finding a productive use for the coal ash from Ameren’s Labadie plant, maybe combine it with silicone sand mined in Pacific to create a better cement.

The story of the hellbender, an aquatic salamander, is another bright spot, of sorts. Although it’s estimated that there are only about 300 Ozark hellbenders in the wild in Missouri, the St. Louis Zoo has made strides in bringing back the population.

“So underneath the herpetology center, they have a facility where they’ve sort of recreated the Ozark streams, and they worked for months and months trying to get them to mate, and they finally had that success,” said Corrigan.

“Now there are literally more Ozark hellbenders at the zoo than in the Missouri wild. Now what are they going to do with them? Can we reintroduce them back into the wild where they are being killed off?”

The decline of Ozark hellbenders in the wild could be due, in part, to ATV use through creeks and streams and generally tearing up the public landscape.

“Even though we have laws saying people can’t go into parks with (ATVs) and do whatever they want, they do anyway because we don’t have the money for the rangers to enforce the laws,” said Corrigan.

ATV use compacts the ground, which stops things from growing. And when people ride them through streams, they kill wildlife, like the hellbenders.

‘Not a Purist, Meet People Where They Are’

Corrigan’s students are quick to make comments if he walks into class with a plastic water bottle, saying he needs to practice what he preaches, but he’s just as quick to reply.

“I’m not necessarily an environmentalist on every one of these issues,” he said. “I’m a journalist who covers the environment.

“I’m not a purist . . . That alienates a lot of people and can do a lot more harm than good. You have to meet people where they are instead of always being shrill and telling them how they should be.”

Corrigan said his book is intended to be an overview for people to educate themselves about what’s going on across the state.

“I’ve got like 70 or 80 environmental issues in there, and if you worry about every one of those, you’d have a nervous breakdown,” he said. “So I advise people, be aware of all these issues that are out there, but in your own life, maybe choose two or three that make sense for you to become involved in or aware about.”

Primary Source Research

A good chunk of the information featured in “Environmental Missouri” comes from Corrigan’s own reporting on the issues over the years as editor of the Webster-Kirkwood Times.

The Times Beach dioxin issue is a prime example.

“That affected Webster-Kirkwood because people were concerned about the water,” he said.

“The radioactive transport issue, our newspaper really covered that heavily because the nuclear waste (from the Three Mile Island nuclear plant meltdown in 1979) came right through the heart of Webster-Kirkwood. I covered that for 10 years.”

In the ’80s, Corrigan received a grant to do a national series on the issue. He went to Three Mile Island and watched them take apart the disaster area and then put it into trains.

He followed the protests all the way to Idaho where they buried the waste.

“So a lot of the material is primary source research,” said Corrigan, “not just reading newspapers and books. It’s from being out there with people and talking to them.”

‘Don’t Sweep These Things Under the Rug’

Back in 1996, the Society for Environmental Journalists, of which Corrigan is a member, held its annual convention in St. Louis.

“It showed how St. Louis and Missouri is just a great place for environmental journalism, because we have everything from A to Z,” said Corrigan.

He doesn’t see shining on a spotlight on all of Missouri’s environmental issues as necessarily a bad thing.

“It might be something where you could turn lemons into lemonade again, because maybe our area could be like a tourist location, a destination to see how these issues were confronted and dealt with,” he said.

“We shouldn’t try to sweep this stuff under the rug, but put together a museum on these issues and how we are trying to address them. I think you would attract people to our area who are interested in this.

“Let’s show the world how we’re dealing with these issues.”

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