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Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Tribute to Peter Lord

The Environmental Medium was the Message

Peter Lord
By Chip Young

He could explain what “eutrophication” was in two sentences. He was that good.

Peter Lord, the Providence Journal’s award-winning environmental reporter for the past three decades, passed away April 4 from brain cancer. He was 60. Peter was one of Rhode Island’s treasures, and a giant to those in the state’s widespread environmental community.

I first met Peter Lord almost 30 years ago. We were standing on the bank of the Pawtuxet River, staring at acres of what one would imagine would appear if every nearby toilet had overflowed into the cove in front of us. I had been summoned from Save The Bay and he from the ProJo Warwick office by calls from alarmed residents who were seeing a nightmare scenario. Pete and I exchanged puzzled looks with each other that said simply, “Huh?”
The next day, Pete’s article, well informed by the input of URI scientists, quelled the curiosity of Rhode Islanders and the panic of neighboring residents and businesses. It revealed that what we were looking at wasn’t the contents of a Port-a-John writ large, but an organic, naturally occurring phenomena known as eutrophication — an inversion of the dead leaves and other deposits from the bottom of the Pawtuxet River that had risen to the surface with chilling visual affect. The alarm sirens were shut off, and people across the state learned a lot about how our environment works.
Turning science-speak into English — no easy task — was Peter’s forte. So was the even more important ability to explain what many of the mysteries of our natural world meant to Rhode Islanders as individuals, families and business owners through tangible examples. On the flip side, through his writing he also could paint a picture of places like Rodman’s Hollow in Block Island, which lyrically embellished even that little slice of heaven.
Pete’s natural intellectual bent to learn about all things environmental and how their intricacies could be conveyed in practical terms set him apart from simply being a reporter. He picked and chose stories that had impacts on every one of us, be it lead paint poisoning in the cities or land conservation efforts in rural areas.
His stories actually changed state policies and regulations. Back in the 1990s, he looked into a curious exchange of letters to the editor at the ProJo, a heated back-and-forth about protecting horseshoe crabs from being smashed willy-nilly on the shores of Narragansett Bay in East Providence. This plea for non-violence was countered by arguments that the only thing horseshoe crabs were good for were lobster bait, so who gave a damn what happened to them? And what the hey, at that time the state Department of Environmental Management (DEM) thought them so trivial they didn’t even have regulations governing their capture.
After talking to scientists and other informed sources, Pete discovered that, in fact, horseshoe crabs were extremely valuable to the pharmaceutical industry, which used their blood to make life-saving medicines. Not longer after the ProJo editorial page salvos, Pete’s story on horseshoe crabs’ importance to the medical field was displayed above the fold on the front page, highlighted by a large color photo that displayed technicians utilizing the crabs’ attention-grabbing neon-blue blood in a laboratory in Fall River, Mass.
Days later, the DEM began creating regulations governing the killing and capture of horseshoe crabs in Rhode Island. The power of the press … in an intrepid and informed hand.
Because of this insight and skill, when a big issue or event loomed, the environmental community’s slogan was always, “Do you think Pete Lord will cover this?” If it was indeed important enough, he doubtless would, to everyone’s relief and delight.
Through the URI Metcalf Institute for Marine and Environmental Journalism, of which he was the journalism director, Pete shared his skills with other media professionals from across the country and around the world, helping build a strong new generation of environmental reporters. It served to remind us how blessed we were to have a knowledgeable reporter dedicated to covering environmental issues at the Providence Journal, and to the paper’s credit, maintaining that role for him, at a time when newspapers were taking an axe to specialized reporting.
Rhode Island has a proud and nationally recognized reputation for its residents’ stewardship of the environment, and being one of the most progressive states in the country in preserving and enhancing its natural resources. Whether it’s thousands of volunteers racing to the shoreline to offer their help in the wake of an oil spill, or passing bonds for land and water protection by over a two-thirds majority every time one appears on the ballot, that display of care and appreciation of the environment shines through brightly.
I don’t think it is a stretch to give a substantial piece of the credit for that tradition to Pete Lord. For more than 30 years his reporting enlightened Rhode Islanders as to how environmental issues were also economic issues. How they were health issues. How they were social justice issues. How the state’s natural beauty was one of the main reasons why people chose to live here. How the environment really mattered — to him, to you, to me, to everyone.
I lost a good friend April 4. So did Rhode Island.
Chip Young is a former communications director at Save The Bay, a senior fellow at the URI Coastal Institute and a member of the ecoRI Inc. board of directors.