Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Op-Ed: Earth Day 50 - A Reflection - Stop The Deception Before It’s Too Late

By Larry J. Schweiger, Former President & CEO, National Wildlife Federation

The following op-ed first appeared in Pittsburgh Current on April 28--

It has been fifty years since the first Earth Day when protesters, wearing gas masks and dressed in black, carried a coffin down Pittsburgh’s Fifth Avenue. They protested the air pollution that plagued the region. 
Some participants complained while others used the moment as an opportunity for environmental “teach-in’s” to inform a growing constituency for environmental action.
Earth Day-1970 was a milestone in the effort to protect and restore our environment. Industrial Pittsburgh’s famous pollution was a poster child for the abuses of unregulated air and water pollution. 
After all, this city once had the worst air pollution in the Nation and was second only to the London fog for its lethal load. In 1948, during a four-day inversion, a deadly toxic cloud threatened 12,000 residents of Donora. 
Twenty died, and 5,910 were deathly ill before the fresh air front finally moved in. Over one hundred tons of soot fell to the ground in Allegheny County each month for many decades. 
Fresh snow was blackened within twenty-four hours. So much soot fell on the city that the soil was soot-black down more than six inches.
The Monongahela River was contaminated with cyanide-laden pickle liquors from the mills, and the Allegheny River ran with raw blood from the slaughterhouses on Herr’s Island. 
The late Dr. Graham Netting, then the head of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, declared that the “water was more dangerous than a poisonous snake.”
Lake Erie was becoming anoxic from oxygen-depleting algae stimulated by nutrients from sewage that flowed from lakeside cities and towns. 
Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River that flows into Lake Erie had so much petroleum wastes that it caught on fire on eight separate occasions. The last Cuyahoga fire was so hot that it warped the steel supports on one of its bridges. 
Pennsylvania had over ten thousand miles of rivers and streams that were impaired by mine drainage. It was common practice that coal washing facilities dumped their wastes in nearby waterways. 
The Schuylkill River ran black for decades. So much coal waste floated down the Susquehanna River that the Holtwood Steam Generating station set up a dredge and collected enough anthracite coal to run the plant for thirty years. 
They purchased their first coal in 1972 when sediments from Hurricane Agnes buried the last of the coal silt in the river bottom.
As a social cause, the environmental movement engaging people from across the political and social spectrum made meaningful progress. 
I was inspired by being a part of an “environmental awakening.” 
In 1970, the Federal Clean Air Act passed the U.S. Senate one hundred to zero and it passed overwhelmingly in the House. 
At the same time, by an 83 percent majority vote, Pennsylvania voters approved Senator Frank Kury’s legislation amending our state Constitution: 
“The people have a right to clean air, pure water, and to the preservation of natural, scenic, historic and aesthetic values of the environment. Pennsylvania’s public natural resources are the common property of all the people, including generations yet to come. As trustee of these resources, the Commonwealth shall conserve and maintain them for the benefit of all the people.” 
Following the Clean Air Act and Section 27, Article 1 Amendment of Pennsylvania’s Constitution, many other landmark environmental laws were enacted at both the state and the Federal levels. 
Lake Erie has rebounded from its death spiral but continues to struggle with algal blooms from non-point pollution. 
Bass are now being caught under the West End Bridge at the head of the Ohio River and all along the rivers in Pittsburgh.
Innovative solutions to old problems were discovered. 
The late Senator John Heinz, a Republican, made sure that the free market was employed in the cause of pollution abatement. 
To get the most sulfur control for the least number of dollars, Senator Heinz and his close friend Senator Tim Wirth (Democrat from Colorado) led the effort to amend the Clean Air Act creating a means for companies to achieve a least-cost pollution abatement approach while updating the toxics provisions of the Clean Air Act.
As I reflect on the span between this Earth Day and the first, I am reminded that we had made steady progress cleaning rivers, purifying the air from carbon monoxide and soot, curbing acid rain, controlling hazardous wastes. 
With the help of “Growing Greener,” Conservancies purchased and protected critical wildlife habitats. 
DDT has been restricted, and bald eagles, osprey, and peregrine falcons have come back in numbers sufficient to be removed from the endangered species list. 
Pittsburgh, the once polluted city, now has three nesting bald eagles, including one not far from Rachel Carson’s birthplace, feeding on fish in the three rivers.
Having worked in the field of conservation and environmental protection for nearly fifty years, including nearly ten years with the Pennsylvania General Assembly, I have played a small part in passing twenty-eight environmental laws. 
I have been a part of environmental cleanups and sound land protection efforts. But things are far different now. 
In recent years, environmental protection has been under siege by well-funded lobbying efforts paid for by polluters and fossil fuel interests to undercut environmental laws.
This relentless attack has been running at a fever pitch, particularly during the past three years as Trump has allowed the industry to capture EPA and the Energy and Interior Departments. 
Over ninety environmental regulations have been eliminated or severely watered down during Trump’s presidency. 
Trump has leased nearly every significant holding on public lands and offshore that has fossil fuel resources. He even opened up the pristine Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil exploitation. 
Ironically, the oil industry has gotten everything they demanded. As a result, supply had been outrunning demand since late in 2019, and smart money has been moving away from the fossil fuel industry in the face of the climate crisis. 
The collapse of the industry was inevitable. The virus brought it on sooner. 
It will be an enormous mistake to pump more tax dollars into a failing incumbent sector that desperately needs to change. 
We must shift to clean energy investments to avoid planetary calamity.
I think it is essential to take a moment to pause and reflect from time to time. Earth Day is one of those moments. 
While scientists tell us that we need to be cutting our carbon emissions dramatically to avoid catastrophic climate disruption, we are spending our limited energies defending historical air and water protections against big oil, coal, and frack-gas corporations bent on keeping America distracted and hoodwinked. 
How can it be that fossil fuel interests have so captured our political system and blinded so many to the reality?
Democracy works only when the citizenry work. It fails when we fail to do our part. 
The secret deliberations of the Constitutional Convention of 1787 had just ended when Benjamin Franklin emerged from the Hall in a chair carried by several men.
 Suffering from a severe bout of gout, Franklin was unable to walk. Standing among the anxious crowd gathered to learn their fate was Mrs. Powel, who asked the question that was on everyone’s mind, “Well, Doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?” 
Franklin uttered his now-famous response, “A republic if you can keep it.” 
Franklin understood that its “keeping” would require the vigilance and informed involvement of all the voters throughout the generations to come.
Our democracy is being hollowed out by polluters and other special interests who have been buying lawmakers with excessive campaign spending. 
Hidden “toxic money” paid for sophisticated efforts to compromise the electoral process by rigging electoral districts through advanced gerrymandering and aggressive voter suppression. 
It seems politics override public health and safety. 
In the face of CDC warnings that the coronavirus outbreak will continue through the fall, Trump and the GOP are blocking Senator Kamala Harris’ Vote Safe Act that would protect all voters by nationalizing vote-by-mail this November. 
(Fortunately, Pennsylvanians can vote by mail. Here in Allegheny County, every voter should go to the Allegheny County website to vote by mail.) 
Every American voter needs to pause long enough on this Earth Day anniversary to see who is distorting our republic beyond recognition into a corporate state. 
By so doing, the fossil fuel industry and other polluters are wrecking our children’s future. 
We voters are the keepers of this republic and protectors of our environment. We must stop this deception before it is too late.

Larry J. Schweiger served as President and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation, President of the Western PA Conservancy in Pittsburgh, Executive Director of the Joint Senate/House Legislative Air and Water Pollution Control and Conservation Committee in Harrisburg over his career.
Related Articles:
[Posted: April 29, 2020] PA Environment Digest

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