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"Dirty Water" and Unintended Consequences: When Doing the Right Thing Spawns Another Right Thing

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I've always figured it's a great, but infrequent, bonus if what I write actually benefits a few readers in some substantial way (well, other than being informative, which I hope everything I write is). One of my first experiences with that idealistic goal was as a television reporter in Anchorage, Alaska, when I did a series of stories about a women's shelter and almost immediately following the broadcast, the shelter was inundated with calls from women looking for protection from their abusive husbands or boyfriends. At the risk of putting too grand a spin on that rookie triumph, for all I know, I might have saved a life or two.

So when I recently published my first book, "Dirty Water," I figured that perhaps, if I told the story just right, there was chance of impacting readers beyond what I thought was a pretty entertaining tale. After all, the story involved a wise-cracking school teacher named Howard Bennett, who, through a series of amazing coincidences, discovered in 1985 that Santa Monica Bay near Los Angeles was considered one of the most polluted bodies of water in the world. Keep in mind, more than 40 million people used the bay's 55 miles of beaches or ocean waters in one way or another. And so this was hardly some esoteric environmental issue, but one that involved many people and was depressingly similar to other places in the world. Bennett took on the cause with such fervor, that in nine months his goal of forcing the City of Los Angeles to fully treat the 420 million gallons of daily sewage its citizens produced--and one of the major causes of the pollution--was realized. With any luck, I hoped, someone might recognize the little guy versus big government theme and would be inspired to take on an environmental issue where they lived.

But it ended up being a lot more personal than that (although I'm still hoping for that bit of influence the book could still have). Bennett never really got any lasting recognition for his contribution to an entire region. If nothing else, the city should have remembered him for the several billions of dollars it was forced to spend on its aging sewage treatment plant. In our hours of interviews, he repeatedly said he wasn't seeking any belated fame for himself, but I could tell just how much it chapped his hide that his passion had been buried as ancient history. Now 80-years-old, deep down he wanted his legacy to be the guy who cleaned up Santa Monica Bay.

I didn't really think about that when I threw a party recently to celebrate the release of the book, inviting to the bash Bennett and several others about whom I wrote. I just figured my friends who came to the party--and had read the book--might like to meet the story's main characters. Indeed, they surrounded Bennett and his wife, Bente, praising him for his deeds and asking him to sign his picture in the book. He seemed energized by all the attention and held court for four hours, sometimes repeating bits from his old speeches as though he was still campaigning for a cleaner bay.

That's nice, I thought. But then, while I was watching this scene for a moment, he looked up at me with his eyes watering, and quietly said, "Thank you." I smiled at him finally understanding how important this moment was to him. I got a little weepy myself.

Another character in the book, a scientist named David Brown who blew the whistle on the lies the city had depended on to justify dumping partially treated sewage into the bay, was also overwhelmed. In 1985, he was vilified by other scientists as a crass publicity-seeker rather than a brave and ethical man and he eventually lost his research job for his trouble. For years, he seethed about those injustices, but here at the party, my friends showered him with continuous admiration, perhaps realizing they might not be so courageous if put in the same situation. Brown didn't get teary on me, but I could tell he was just as touched as Bennett.

It took a year to research and write the book. During that time, I might have been able to squelch the fantasies of it becoming a best seller, but I can't help but now believe the story will make a difference to someone. At the very least, all that effort so far has impacted a few lives. Just not the ones I expected.

Around the Web

Dirty Water : Bill Sharpsteen

Los Angeles Magazine

Environmentalist began Heal the Bay - Los Angeles Times