Earth Day Flashback: 30 Years of Working to Preserve PA’s Wildlife

NWF   |   April 16, 2010

This column by Larry Schweiger, then president & CEO of the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, originally ran in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on April 23, 2000, marking the 30th annual Earth Day. With the 40th Earth Day set for April 22, 2010, Larry pulled this out of his archives. – Miles Grant, NWF

Earth Day 1970-2000: Thirty Years of Progress

By Larry J. Schweiger

April 23, 2000

It’s been thirty years since Earth Day protesters wearing gasmasks and dressed in black carried a coffin down Pittsburgh streets to protest the air pollution that plagued the region.

Pittsburgh’s famous air pollution problem was a poster child for the first Earth Day. Sadly we were covered by all three of the National TV outlets of the day. 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 sulfurous cloud threatened 12,000 residents of Donora. Twenty died and 5,910 were deathly ill before fresh air finally moved in. Over 100 tons of soot fell to the ground in Allegheny County each month for many decades. Fresh snow blackened within twenty-four hours. So much soot fell on the city that the soil was coal black down more than six inches.

The Monongahela River was polluted with cyanide-laden pickle liquors from the mills and Allegheny River ran with raw blood from the slaughterhouses on Herr’s Island. Dr. Graham Netting, a leading Western Pennsylvania Conservancy Director at the time declared that the “water was more dangerous than a poisonous snake.”

Lake Erie was becoming anoxic from oxygen depleting algae stimulated by nutrients from raw or poorly treated 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 two separate occasions. The second 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. So much coal waste floated down the Susquehanna River that one power company set up a river dredge and collected enough coal to run a power plant for thirty years. The plant was finally forced to purchase its first coal in 1972 when Hurricane Agnes buried the last of the coal silt in the river bottom.

Earth Day 1970 was a milestone in the effort to draw attention to these huge problems and to call for the restoration of our environment. Some Earth Day participants protested while others used the moment as an opportunity for environmental “teach-ins” to inform a growing constituency for environmental action.

It was a very exciting to witness and be a part of an “environmental awakening.” I remember organizing a college biology club field trip to Pymatuning on the first Earth Day to see what were at the time, the last pair of nesting bald eagles in Pennsylvania. We planned to charter a bus to visit this grand nest site. The response to the field trip was so large that I needed to rent a second bus to get all the students to the nest site. In preparation for this field trip many of the students read Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and understood DDT’s role in reducing the number of bald eagles to dangerous levels. We talked about DDT and its impact on raptors like bald eagles.

The eagle nest was in the top a large white oak tree overlooking a large marsh. The nest had been used over many years and accumulated branches and other nesting materials that weighed more than a ton. The nesting tree anchored in shallow soils leaned under the weight of this massive nest. Visiting with a Game Commission biologist, we learned that this endangered pair of bald eagles produced two weakened eggs that had failed from DDT thinning.

My classmates were impressed with these magnificent birds and their huge nest and deeply saddened by their shrinking numbers. For many, it was their first sight of our Nation’s endangered symbol and they feared that it might be their last.

This educational field trip was part of a nationwide effort to educate the public to the threats on the environment and to galvanize political will to save the environment. Earth Day 1970 was a milestone in the effort to heal our lands, to clean our rivers and to purify our air.

As I reflect on the thirty years that span between this upcoming Earth Day and the first, I am reminded that we have made incredible progress in our effort to clean our rivers, to purify our air, to curb acid rain, control toxics and to purchase and protect critical wildlife habitat. DDT has been restricted in this country and bald eagles and peregrine falcons have come back in numbers sufficient to be removed from the endangered species list. Landmark environmental laws were enacted at both the state and the Federal levels. Lake Erie has rebounded and bass are now caught at the West End Bridge at the head of the Ohio River in Pittsburgh. Innovative solutions to old problems were discovered. Senator John Heinz for example, made sure that even the free market was employed in the cause of pollution abatement. To get the most sulfur control for the least number of dollars, he amended the Clean Air Act to create a means for companies to sell excess sulfur controls in the marketplace. As a social cause, the environmental movement has made enormous progress over the three decades. Interestingly, it has engaged millions from across the political and social spectrum.

By and 83% majority vote, we the people of Pennsylvania amended our state Constitution to guarantee that:

“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.”

The powerful amendment declares that:

  1. Clean air and pure water are basic human rights;
  2. The environment belongs to our children’s children;
  3. That the Commonwealth and all of it agents including local and county government are the trustee;
  4. Decisions at all levels should benefit all people including those yet to come.

(It has been my fondest hope that this language could be added to the U. S. Constitution. Similar language has been included in many recent constitutions adopted by various nations around the world.)

During the 1970s, the Pennsylvania General Assembly enacted more than thirty major statutes addressing pollution and natural resource protection. Underpinning this wonderfully written environmental bill of rights is a set of laws addressing major concerns from mining law to recycling. While working for the General Assembly’s Joint Conservation Committee during these exciting times, I was often reminded that laws are stopgap measures setting the minimums for environmental practice. We would never restore our environment until an environmental ethic is a driving factor in all public and private decision-making.

There has been a sea change in leadership over the decades and new corporate executives are largely committed to complying with the law and many seize opportunities to go beyond compliance. The US Airways Chairman Stephen M. Wolf for example, takes every change he can to write about global environmental concerns like depletion of marine fish stocks and overpopulation of the poorest nations. He personally cares about the environment and it shows in his thoughtful writing.

The sheer number of Pennsylvania companies that now strive for environmental excellence impresses me. They have discovered the rewards of doing good for the environment while doing well as a company. Gov. Tom Ridge’s administration under Jim Sief’s leadership has done an excellent job of celebrating corporate leadership for the environment in their annual recognition events. The scores of projects recognized are truly impressive.

Law enforcement is as important as ever, but we have rediscovered that the old fashion carrot still works too. Our long-term success will be found in integrating economic, ecologic and societal values into every decision and undertaking as a matter of personal responsibility.

I think it is important to take a moment to pause and reflect from time to time. Earth Day is one of those important moments. Celebrate our shared progress, educate your children about our regional history and help them to understand our current challenges threats. Better yet, get outdoors with your family and friends and reconnect with the places that you love so much. After all, we tend to save the places we care about.