David Hoppe

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:: Blooming algae

Our appetite for freedom

By David Hoppe

"Don't look back. Something might be gaining on you," said baseball great Satchel Paige. Well, if he were around today, Mr. Paige might be amazed at how close that something is.

Exhibit A: The front page of the May 24 Indianapolis Star proclaiming: "What's Good For Your Grass Can Be Bad For Your Water."  The story, by Jason Thomas, goes on to describe how the use of phosphorus-infused fertilizers on farms and yards (and golf courses -- more on those in a moment) creates run-off that acts like steroids for algae in our rivers and streams. This phosphorus-pumped algae forms enormous blooms that kill fish and affect our drinking water, making it smell and taste rotten.

A geologist from IUPUI, Lenore P. Tedesco, is quoted, saying, "the vast majority of water in Indiana has an excess of phosphorus, which is causing changes in the ecosystem and creating water-quality problems."

This wasn't the first time Jason Thomas wrote about algae in our water. Look back a month, to April 26. Thomas started a story titled, "Algae Infusing Water With Musty Taste" with this sentence: "A naturally occurring outburst of algae in the White River is causing taste and odor issues with some Indianapolis Water customers."

The key word here is "naturally." Reassuring, isn't it? Maybe Mr. Thomas got this word from Amber Finkelstein, a spokesperson for the Indiana Department of Environmental Management. Here is Ms. Finkelstein talking about algae blooms to Channel 13:

"It is always better to let these take their course naturally, if possible, since the algae is a natural organism, allowing it to run its course and die off is likely to be less harmful than putting chemicals into the problem."

Ms. Finkelstein gave this interview almost a year ago, back in August 2009. Yes, "putting chemicals into the problem" is a problem, alright. The problem, in this case, being the White River. But let's be clear: The algae in White River is no more "natural" than home run hitter Barry Bonds' inflated biceps.

Satchel Paige was right.

Something else has been gaining on us - our waistlines. On Tuesday, May 25, The Star put this on its front page: "Our Fitness Misses the Mark." The 36 th annual American College of Sports Medicine's American Fitness Index reported that Indianapolis now ranks 44 th out of the country's 50 most populous areas when it comes to health and fitness. Making matters worse is that we've somehow managed to drop eight places in just one year.

Obesity and smoking rates have actually gone up here in the past 12 months, as has the number of people diagnosed with diabetes. We also have fewer acres of parkland, playgrounds and recreation centers per capita than most cities our size, and we're spending less money on our parks. Our lack of public transit is another factor, since it means a greater overall dependence on cars for commuting.

Under these circumstances, two of our strengths, according to the study, come with a heaping dose of irony. We rank high in our number of primary care givers - a seemingly classic case of demand and supply. And our metro area boasts a higher than average number of golf courses per capita. Hurray for phosphorus fertilizers! Perhaps algae will be our new State Flower.

And while this news, like gouts of crude oil in a Louisiana marsh, accumulates, the official cheer-leading continues about the progress of BP's refinery expansion project in Whiting, on Indiana's Lake Michigan shore. But as Elizabeth Kolbert reports in The New Yorker , "Having consumed most of the world's readily accessible oil, we are now compelled to look for fuel in ever more remote places, and to extract it in ever riskier and more damaging ways."

BP's expansion in Indiana is intended to refine Canadian tar sand. As the name suggests, it's a dirty process, often involving strip-mining, that extracts oil from a solid form, creating two to four times the amount of greenhouse gases associated with conventional oil refining. BP's Indiana project, of course, is touted for the jobs it will create. Perhaps some of the newly unemployed along the Gulf Coast will consider migrating here.

Stories like these are turning this into a season of blame. Blame BP or the government for a lack of damage control in the Gulf. Blame the makers of fast and highly processed food for making us fat. Blame fertilizers for turning our waterways into blooming algae gardens.

Ultimately, though, the blame bounces back to you and me. Our appetites for what's fast and cheap have created this situation, become so consuming that we've come to confuse them with freedom itself. We could quit using phosphorus in favor of other, more earth-friendly fertilizers; we could make unhealthy foods more expensive; we could commit ourselves to reinventing society around safer, more sustainable forms of energy. But we don't because, in every case, it would mean intruding on someone's idea of what it means to be free.

"Don't look back," said Satchel Paige. If he were around today, he'd probably tell us to look in the mirror.