Photograph from Ohio History Center
The Cuyahoga River fire of 1969 is credited as a turning point in American environmental consciousness, which manifested itself in the first Earth Day less than a year later. The river, which flows through Cleveland, had erupted on nine previous occasions, from 1868 through 1952.
While the world watched America respond to the Tucson Massacre, I've been preoccupied with how that same nation has reacted to tragedies of a different nature. I'm teaching a class this semester on the environment in the news, and for the first discussion I developed a timeline of environmental milestones and legislation in the post-World War II era, from early concerns over pesticides to the ongoing autism epidemic and global climate change.
A few glimmers of hope are tucked away in this particular view of American history -- especially the power public opinion wielded in the 1970s. But the nut graf to this tale isn't good. As illustrated by the following environmental retrospective, gleaned mostly from the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), the WorldWatch Institute and government Web sites, the milestones were mostly tragedies. And American leaders didn't react to them very well.
The earliest law listed on the NRDC list was intended to control contaminants in food. The Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, passed in 1938, cited pesticides among the substances that needed regulated. But one year later, scientists discovered the insecticidal properties of a chlorinated compound called DDT, and the concerns that produced the law were effectively trashed, along with the law, apparently.
1962 - "Silent Spring predicted soundless spring mornings, absent the rhythms of birds and bees and bugs, due to pesticides in general and DDT in particular."
The U.S. Environmental Protection (EPA) elaborates on its DDT Regulatory History page: "Shortly thereafter, particularly during World War II, the U.S. began producing large quantities of DDT for control of vector-borne diseases such as typhus and malaria abroad."
DDT's use mushroomed, and 24 years after the federal government first moved to regulate pesticides, nature writer and former marine biologist Rachel Carson penned the classic Silent Spring in 1962. Credited with helping launch the modern environmental movement, the book predicted soundless spring mornings, absent the rhythms of birds and bees and bugs, due to pesticides in general and DDT in particular.
In a fact sheet on natural history, ecology and recovery, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says DDT contributed to the Bald Eagle's near demise in the late '60s: "Forty years ago, our national symbol was in danger of extinction throughout most of its range," it says. "Habitat destruction and degradation, illegal shooting, and the contamination of its food source, largely as a consequence of DDT, decimated the eagle population."
A series of federal reports between 1963 and 1969 all recommended "an orderly phasing out of the pesticide over a limited period of time," EPA says.
Three decades after scientists first warned of its potentially tragic effects, in June 1972, the federal government finally banned DDT.
Another watershed event in American environmental history occurred in 1969, when oil and debris in the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland erupted in flames. The fire lasted 30 minutes and caused approximately $50,000 in damage, according to the Ohio History Center. But it drew national attention to pollution problems across the nation.
On Aug. 1, 1969, Time magazine described the 100-mile-long industrial sewer:
1969 - "When President Nixon and his staff walked into the White House on Jan. 20, 1969, we were totally unprepared for the tidal wave of public opinion in favor of cleaning the nation's environment that was about to engulf us." - Nixon aide John C. Whitaker
"Some River! Chocolate-brown, oily, bubbling with subsurface gases, it oozes rather than flows. 'Anyone who falls into the Cuyahoga does not drown,' Cleveland's citizens joke grimly. 'He decays.' . . .
"The Federal Water Pollution Control Administration dryly notes: 'The lower Cuyahoga has no visible signs of life, not even low forms such as leeches and sludge worms that usually thrive on wastes.'"
The infamous 1969 fire, however, was neither the first time the river had combusted, nor the most-damaging. "Fires occurred on the Cuyahoga River in 1868, 1883, 1887, 1912, 1922, 1936, 1941, 1948, and in 1952," the history center continues. "The 1952 fire caused over $1.5 million in damage."
In 1970, U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson, D-Wis., who that prior year had personally witnessed devastation from an oil spill in Santa Barbara, Calif., proposed a day of environmental teach-ins, which evolved into the first Earth Day in 1970.
"On the 22nd of April, 20 million Americans took to the streets, parks, and auditoriums to demonstrate for a healthy, sustainable environment in massive coast-to-coast rallies," according to EarthDay.org. "Thousands of colleges and universities organized protests against the deterioration of the environment."
Republican Richard Nixon had assumed the presidency 16 months before that inaugural Earth Day. In an essay titled "Earth Day Recollections: What It Was Like When The Movement Took Off," former Nixon aide John C. Whitaker describes the massive outpouring's impact.
1970 - "On the 22nd of April, 20 million Americans took to the streets, parks, and auditoriums to demonstrate for a healthy, sustainable environment in massive coast-to-coast rallies." - EarthDay.org
"When President Nixon and his staff walked into the White House on Jan. 20, 1969, we were totally unprepared for the tidal wave of public opinion in favor of cleaning the nation's environment that was about to engulf us," he wrote. "If Hubert Humphrey had become president, the result would have been the same."
Neither side had given the environment "more than lip service" during the 1968 campaign, Whitaker continued. Nixon staff members couldn't recall the press posing even one question on the environment.
"Yet only 17 months after the election, on April 22, 1970, the country celebrated Earth Day, with a national outpouring of concern for cleaning up the environment," he wrote. "Politicians of both parties jumped on the issue. So many politicians were on the stump on Earth Day that Congress was forced to close down. The oratory, one of the wire services observed, was 'as thick as smog at rush hour.'"
Over the next decade, Congress passed, and Republican presidents signed, the bulk of the nation's major environmental protection laws: National Environmental Policy Act and Clean Air Act in 1970, Clean Water Act and Marine Mammal Protection Act in 1972, Endangered Species Act in 1973, Safe Drinking Water Act in 1974, Federal Land Management Policy Act in 1976.
In the mid-'70s, the nation's environmental focus increasingly turned to health threats from toxic chemicals like mercury, lead, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), dioxins and tens of thousands of industrial chemicals that had been created and released into the environment since World War II.
The Toxic Substances and Control Act of 1976 authorized EPA to regulate the manufacture, distribution, import and processing of certain toxic chemicals. The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act of 1976 sought to prevent the creation of toxic waste dumps by setting standards for the management of hazardous waste.
In 1980, Congress passed, and Democrat President Jimmy Carter signed, the only piece of major environmental legislation of the decade -- the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act, a.k.a. Superfund.
Superfund required cleanup of hazardous waste sites.
Two years before Superfund, Americans' failure to act against the environmental threats toxins posed to children and adults surfaced, literally and figuratively, in a small town situated on the edge of Niagara Falls, N.Y., called Love Canal. According to an entry in the EPA Journal, the neighborhood had been conceived in the early 20th century as a "dream community," so envisioned by its creator and namesake William T. Love.
But Love's dream crashed, and the canal he had dug between the upper and lower Niagara Rivers in the 1920s to produce hydroelectricity transformed into a municipal and industrial chemical dumpsite. In 1953, Love Canal was filled with dirt and sold to the city for a buck. In the late '50s, a residential community sprouted atop the old dump.
The New York Times on Aug. 2, 1978, described the environmental tragedy that inexorably bubbled to the surface over the next quarter century: "Eighty-two different compounds, 11 of them suspected carcinogens, have been percolating upward through the soil, their drum containers rotting and leaching their contents into the backyards and basements of 100 homes and a public school built on the banks of the canal."
1978 - "The study found increases in miscarriages, still births, crib deaths, nervous breakdowns, hyperactivity, epilepsy, and urinary tract disorders." - Love Canal activist Lois Gibbs
Love Canal resident and citizen organizer Lois Gibbs describes the official reaction to this tragedy in an essay published on a Boston University School of Public Health Web site devoted to the episode.
"Once the state had evacuated 239 families and began the cleanup, they arbitrarily defined the affected area and erected a 10-foot fence around the evacuated area," she wrote. "This decision was arbitrary because at the time nobody knew how far the chemicals had gone or how many people were affected."
Love Canal residents worked with a cancer research scientist at Roswell Memorial Institute in Buffalo and studied health histories of residents outside the evacuated area. Completed in February 1979, "The study found increases in miscarriages, still births, crib deaths, nervous breakdowns, hyperactivity, epilepsy, and urinary tract disorders," Gibbs wrote.
A June 1980 EPA news release announced a second evacuation of an additional 700 families "in recognition of the cumulative evidence of exposure by the Love Canal residents to toxic wastes," a deputy administrator said.
On Aug. 7, 1981, New York State Health Commissioner Dr. Robert P. Whalen declared Love Canal an emergency, finding growing evidence that its residents faced a higher risk of "chronic health hazards as well as spontaneous abortions and congenital malformations."
Two years later and a half continent away, in 1983, federal and state governments had to evacuate and relocate 2,240 residents in Times Beach, Mo., 17 miles southwest of St. Louis. The town's roads had been sprayed for dust control with oils containing dioxin, a chlorinated compound similar to but more toxic than PCBs.
"The action was necessary after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) completed analysis of extensive soil sampling in the area and advised that the hazard posed by dioxin contamination is a continuing threat to the health of citizens in the community," EPA said in a Feb. 22, 1983, news release.
"I came here today to personally tell the citizens of Times Beach the results of EPA's sampling activities and what we are going to do," EPA Administrator Anne M. Burford said. "In response to the CDC's advice, EPA and FEMA have determined that permanent relocation is necessary, and I am transferring to FEMA $33.1 million in Superfund monies to accomplish this."
The Reagan Revolution began its march across the nation and its decision-making apparatus with Republican Ronald Reagan's election in 1980. And according to the NRDC, the only major environmental laws enacted under the three terms of Reagan and George H.W. Bush were the 1986 Community Right to Know Act and Oil Pollution Act of 1990.
Right to Know requires companies to make public information about the toxic chemicals they release into the air, water and land. Oil Pollution, which followed by one year the 11-million-gallon Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska, required oil storage facilities and vessels to prepare spill-response plans. It also increased polluters' liability for cleanup costs and damage to natural resources.
1992 - "If not checked, many of our current practices put at serious risk the future that we wish for human society and the planet and animal kingdoms." - World Scientists Warning to Humanity
Several 1970s-era laws were amended under Reagan and Bush, including the Safe Water Drinking Act and Superfund in 1986, the Clean Water Act in 1987 and 1990, and the Clean Air Act in 1990.
Not included in the NRDC's list of environmental laws and regulations is National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act of 1986, which history will record as perhaps the most environmentally disastrous law ever enacted. The act effectively indemnified vaccine manufacturers against injuries caused by their products and enabled one of the most massive exposures of human beings to a toxic substance in human history.
Through an industry-sponsored, government-backed vaccination schedule, an entire generation of children in the West and in developing countries were directly exposed to massive amounts of mercury, the most potent neurotoxin known to science.
The vaccine law took effect Oct. 1, 1988, in America, for example. According to the CDC the vaccination rate for American children increased from 11 shots of three vaccines in 1988 to 36 shots of 11 vaccines today. With few exceptions, from 1988 through the early and mid-2000s, those vaccines contained mercury as a preservative. Many still do today.
Autism is a neurological-based condition that, according to the CDC, manifests as "significant impairments in social skills and communication" and has reached epidemic proportions in the United States and around the world.
A review of worldwide health studies by scientists at EPA's National Health and Environmental Effects Research Laboratory, published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, put a date on the autism epidemic's beginning. "In the Danish, California, and worldwide data sets, we found that an increase in AD (autism disorder) cumulative incidence began about 1988-1989," the researchers wrote.
In 1992, Henry Kendall from the Union of Concerned Scientists brought together 1,700 scientists from 69 countries, to issue the "World Scientists' Warning to Humanity."
"Human activities inflict harsh and often irreversible damage on the environment and on critical resources," they wrote. "If not checked, many of our current practices put at serious risk the future that we wish for human society and the planet and animal kingdoms, and may so alter the living world that it will be unable to sustain life in the manner that we know."
In 1996, Our Stolen Future, a book hailed as the next Silent Spring, warned that the billions of pounds of synthetic chemicals released into the environment threatened reproductive development in animals, including humans. Many of the chemicals - including, pesticides, PCBs and dioxins -- mimic and disrupt natural hormones.
The same year that the federal government bought out an entire town due to toxic contamination, EPA and the National Academy of Sciences issued a report that presaged another emerging environmental disaster, concluding in 1983 that the build-up of carbon dioxide and other "greenhouse gases" in the Earth's atmosphere would likely lead to global warming.
2001 - "President George W. Bush announced the United States, the world's largest greenhouse gas emitter, would not ratify Kyoto"
Less than a decade later, a U.N. Convention on Climate Change in 1992 set non-binding carbon dioxide reduction goals for industrial countries to reduce emissions to 1990 levels by 2000.
The International Panel on Climate Change, a U.N. assemblage of hundreds of prominent climate scientists, released a 1995 report concluding that "the balance of evidence suggests that there is a discernible human influence on global climate," the NRDC says.
In 1997, the Kyoto Protocol strengthened the Climate Change Convention by mandating that industrial countries cut their carbon dioxide emissions by 6 to 8 percent from 1990 levels by 2008-2012.
Four years later, in 2001, President George W. Bush announced the United States, the world's largest greenhouse gas emitter, would not ratify Kyoto. The next year, roughly 3,250 square kilometers of Antarctica's Larsen B ice shelf collapsed.
Eighteen years after scientists warned about the potentially tragic impacts of global climate change, on Jan. 12, 2011, NASA announced that 2010 tied 2005 as the hottest year ever recorded.
Steven Higgs can be reached at .