America Before Earth Day: Smog and Disasters Spurred the Laws Trump Wants to Undo

The Philadelphia city center at sunset in 1973.

A huge oil spill. A river catching fire. Lakes so polluted they were too dangerous for fishing or swimming. Air so thick with smog it was impossible to see the horizon.

That was the environmental state of the nation 50 years ago.But pollution and disasters prompted action. On April 22, 1970, millions of people throughout the country demonstrated on the inaugural Earth Day, calling for air, water and land in the country to be cleaned up and protected. And that year, in a bipartisan effort, the Environmental Protection Agency was created and key legislation — the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act — came into force.

Now, the Trump administration has made eliminating federal regulations a priority, and an increasing number of environmental rules are under threat.

Here’s a look at five environmental disasters that shifted the public conversation and prompted, directly or indirectly, lawmakers to act.

Credit...Vernon Merritt III/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

On January 28, 1969, an oil rig exploded off the coast of Santa Barbara, Calif., spewing three million gallons of crude oil into the ocean in one of the worst environmental disasters in the history of the United States.

At the time, there were no federal measures in place to regulate offshore drilling.

After the spill local officials pleaded with the federal government to end oil exploration off the California coast. But it was not until 1978 that the first federal regulations were passed.

Just over 40 years after the Santa Barbara rig blowout, on April 20, 2010, an even worse spill, known as the Deepwater Horizon disaster, resulted in the tightening of federal rules.

But this past January, the Trump administration said it would reopen vast areas of United States coastal waters to new offshore oil and gas drilling projects. Shortly thereafter, the administration began the process of rolling back safety regulations on existing rigs.

Ryan Zinke, the interior secretary, has also proposed revising a five-year plan for offshore oil and gas leasing, which conservationists say would harm marine life and could also pose a danger to humans.

On June 22, 1969, the Cuyahoga River near Cleveland caught fire — both literally and in the public imagination. A few months later the conflagration became a big story in Time magazine, which described the Cuyahoga as a river that “oozes rather than flows.”

The story prompted outrage throughout the country, where many rivers, after decades of industrial pollution, were too dangerous for swimming, fishing or drinking.(The main photo in Time was actually of the Cuyahoga when it caught fire 17 years earlier, in 1952. The river had burned at least 13 times.)

The fire, fueled by an oil slick on river’s surface, and resulting media coverage galvanized the outrage into broader public action.

It culminated in the passage of the 1972 Clean Water Act. That measure, like the Clean Air Act, was an extension of earlier laws. But the piecemeal nature of the earlier rules had resulted in a lack of oversight and regulatory control. The 1972 act coordinated the rules and gave regulatory authority to the nascent E.P.A.

Since the law’s creation, waterways across the United States are markedly cleaner, though half still fall short of national goals. Recent decisions, though, could lead to backsliding.

The E.P.A. has suspended the Obama-era Waters of the United States rules, which sought to clarify which waterways are considered part of the national water system. Smaller bodies of water, like intermittent streams and wetlands, have been in a legal gray area since the 1972 act despite having significant impact on water quality.

Scott Pruitt, the E.P.A. administrator, also removed Clean Water Act decision-making authority from regional offices, leaving him the sole arbiter.

In the late 1970s, residents of Love Canal in Niagara Falls, N.Y., began complaining of odd smells, rashes and liquid leaching into the basements of their homes. Decades earlier, the Hooker Chemical Company had dumped toxic waste in the canal and buried it. Outraged, the residents of Love Canal organized and were eventually relocated from their town.

While the residents of Love Canal were not the first or only community to confront the toxic legacy of industry, their plight caught the attention of national media, and ultimately, helped prompt the creation of the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, commonly known as the Superfund. Passed by Congress in 1980, the law meant that chemical and petroleum companies would be taxed to create a cleanup trust fund.

Over time, however, the trust fund has dwindled, with taxpayers increasingly footing cleanup bills. In the E.P.A.’s 2019 budget, staff cuts have been made, while some people nominated for key positions have direct links to polluting industries. In December, the administration also rejected a proposed rule that mining companies prove they have the money to clean up pollution left behind at their sites.

Pittsburghers used to say that if you wore a white shirt to work in the morning, that the shirt would be as gray as the air by lunchtime. In cities and towns throughout the country, Americans didn’t just breathe the air, they could all but touch it. In the nation’s National Parks, air pollution clouded the views.

This was the United States before the 1970s Clean Air Act.

There was no single smog event that led to the act. In the years leading up to its passage, though, “You had growing awareness in the scientific community about problems like smog,” said Eric Schaeffer, the executive director of the Environmental Integrity Project. “You had the beginnings of an understanding that it was bigger than any state agency could manage.”

The act was an overhaul and extension of the 1963 Clean Air Act. It enabled the newly created E.P.A. to set standards related to six key pollutants that were known to harm human health.

In recent months the Trump administration has signaled its desire to undo some of parts of the act. Mr. Pruitt, the E.P.A. administrator, has said that Obama-era car emissions standards designed to reduce greenhouse gasses and other pollutants linked to respiratory diseases and heart disease are set “too high.”

In the early 1970s, the gray wolf was teetering on the edge of extinction in the lower 48 states. Throughout the earlier part of the century, the wolf was largely considered a trophy and was hunted and skinned for its fur to within an inch of the species’ life.

In its company were dozens of other species at risk of dying out, with few laws to protect them.

In 1973, shortly after the first Earth Day, with the American public increasingly aware of the importance of biodiversity, the Endangered Species Act was signed into law by President Richard M. Nixon. The act was designed to prohibit the killing or harassing of protected species or damaging the habitats necessary for their survival.

Shortly thereafter, the gray wolf was listed as “endangered” under the act and — alongside the bald eagle, American alligator and dozens of other species — began to slowly recover in some areas. Scientists estimate that the act has directly prevented the extinction of more than 200 species.

The act has long been a point of contention between industry and conservationists, and has come under criticism from previous administrations. But under the Trump administration, at least 63 separate legislative efforts to weaken the act have been undertaken since January 2017, according to the Center for Biological Diversity.

Among them were the delisting of various species that conservationists argue are not fully recovered, like grizzly bears in Yellowstone National Park. The attempts to water down the act are “among the worst” by any administration, said Bruce Stein, the chief scientist of the National Wildlife Federation.

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