Life Before Earth Day and the Environmental Movement

Cleveland Cuyahoga River burning in 1969
Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River burning in 1969

In 1969, Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River was so polluted with industrial waste runoff it literally Caught Fire! America’s Potomac, Chicago, Delaware and Hudson rivers all stunk to high heaven with millions of gallons of industrial waste deposited in them every single day. Most cities dumped their sewage directly into nearby rivers, with little or no treatment. Boston and Baltimore harbors were noxious dead zones.

Massive floating fish kills were a common sight in harbors.

Heavy choking smog from smokestacks and tailpipes was blocking the sun and sickening citizens in Los Angeles, Chicago, New York City and London. Lake Erie’s oxygen content was so low it sustained precious little fish. Leaded paints and auto exhausts were at high enough levels they could cause birth defects. Industrial cities like St. Louis and Newark, with scores of belching smoke stacks, stank to the point of causing nausea and skin rashes in children.

I’m not painting some dystopian future landscape here. I was in grade school in the 1960’s and it was all very real.  Whether in the air, water or earth, we could not escape the fact we were slowly destroying the very countries we lived in. By 1970, there were few pollution deniers left [including in U.S. Congress!], as the evidence was visible, widespread and undeniable world-wide.

Ecology had become a legitimate science and a topic of daily dinner table discussions.

The burgeoning environmental movement reminded people that our air, water and land resources were finite. In the 1960s, the industrial states of the U.S. were more worried about losing industries, tax dollars and union jobs than about preventing widespread pollution. It was clear the U.S. needed a Federal environmental policy.

Republican President Richard Nixon was at first reluctant to create a federal agency that set and enforced environmental laws. He had bigger fish to fry at the time, like the ongoing War in Vietnam. But by 1970, the Vietnam War was no longer dominating headlines. Concerns about pollution became a new priority for the White House. With backlash coming from all directions, the message of outrage and concern from the American people was getting through to even Nixon.

The first Earth Day took place in April 1970 with support of both Republican and Democratic Senators.

In the end, Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) not because he himself shared those concerns, but the public and Congress obviously did. “It is literally now or never,” he said in his 1970 State of the Union address.  He signed the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which began a federal role in environmental protection by creating a new agency – the U.S. EPA. It’s hard to imagine such overwhelming bipartisan support in Congress for environmental protection in today’s world of climate change denial, but it happened in 1970.  

There are countless ways our world has changed for the better, thanks in part to the U.S .EPA. Here are just a few:

The CLEAN AIR ACT of 1970 gave EPA the authority to regulate air pollutants like lead. Americans were dying every year from heart disease linked to lead poisoning and children were growing up with lower IQs. The levels of other air toxins like mercury, benzene, and arsenic have also been dramatically reduced.

The CLEAN WATER ACT of 1972 gave EPA the authority to set national regulations over municipal and industrial waste waters AND enforce them at the state level, while also providing the funds to do so.

The  Pesticide Control ACT of 1972 gave EPA authority to regulate pesticides. Before it banned the use of DDT, the insecticide was the most popular agricultural pesticide in the US. People had little notion of its dangers.

The Resource Conservation & Recovery Act of 1976 required landfills to be lined and water leaching through them collected. Up through the 1960s, hazardous waste was disposed of like ordinary trash— in unlined landfills or in open dumps on factory land, where runoff from rusting barrels contaminated city drinking waters.

The Acid Rain Program reduced emissions of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide in the air, which were raising the acidity levels of our lakes and killing fish populations. The Asbestos Program provides resources on how to manage asbestos fibers used in fire proofing, which when inhaled causes a brutal form of lung cancer called asbestosis.

U.S. EPA Superfund Site Warning sign
U.S. EPA Superfund Site Warning sign

The SUPERFUND ACT of 1980 was started to clean up our greatest mistakes and the legacy of hazardous waste sites like Love Canal, NY and Times Beach, MO recovering clean up costs from the original polluters. Superfund sites exist in almost every US state. Whether they know it or not, 1 in 6 Americans lives near a cleaned up Superfund Site! The world followed suit and the European Environment Agency was formed by the European Union in 1994.

One could think that in the decades since, the U.S. EPA and European EEA have done their job, pollution is under control, America and the world in general is clean and safe again. Time to deregulate the states and trust their industries? It will save corporations billions and create more well-paying jobs. Right?  Corporations certainly give millions in donations to like minded politicians.

Any student of history will tell you that humans beings do not learn from their mistakes. One simply has to look at our present day and the Great Pacific Garbage Patch or the Global Climate Crisis to realize we still have a long way to go. Deregulation of polluting corporations, with profits placed above people, is a slippery slope that America and the world has already fallen down once before. To quote former U.S. President Ronald Reagan: “Trust but verify.”

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Published by andrewspaulw

LOST IN HISTORY Blog/Podcast about key forgotten history still relevant in today's world. Paul Andrews also has 5 historical adventure novels, all available on Amazon.

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