September 29, 2017

1970. The Environmental Crisis Facing the Planet

The Great Political Issue of Our Time
The Earthrise photograph taken by astronaut Bill Anders during the Apollo 8 mission, December 24, 1968 (source)
Bill Downs

ABC Washington

July 19, 1970

Since I took over the ABC News ecology beat a few months ago, I've been up to my ears in a strange kind of journalistic pollution. Call it publicity flak—or public relations gunk, if you will. But ever since the Apollo astronauts took that first picture of the Earthrise over the moon's horizon—showing for the first time our beautiful blue planet swathed in a white batting of clouds—people seemed all at once to grasp the analogy that like the astronauts isolated in their space capsule, every one of us also is riding through space, each dependent on the life system within the thin capsule of atmosphere which encompasses our globe.

After the broadcasting and publication of that one Apollo Earth-picture, the word "ecology" had public meaning and the term "environment" assumed a special definition for mankind.

There's another thing about that Earthrise picture that also hit home. From some 250,000 miles away our planet looked pristinely clean, scrubbed under its wash of cloud cover. The continents shone like rare amber and the seas reflected the color of costly sapphire.

But all of us Earthlings viewing this photographic miracle knew the picture to be false. We had only to step outside our doors or look out the windows to see Man's violation of the land, air, and water; Man's depredation of his atmosphere, his wanton rape of the only world he possesses.

You can disagree with me, but it's my theory that one Apollo picture of the Earth literally hit people where they live—and produced a common and bumbling realization—that humanity must stop its ravishing attack on nature, or the Earth and everything on it will soon be dead.

As you know, there are some philosopher-ecologists who say it's already too late, that the exploding human population already has extracted, changed, or killed so much of the Earth's ecological system that the normal life cycle has been warped into an escalating spiral toward death and annihilation.

Whether these Cassandras are right or not, I simply cannot accept such a negative outlook, and neither can a lot of other concerned people. Which brings us back to that strange brand of journalistic pollution I was talking about.

After the tremendous national response to Earth Day last April, there were widespread predictions that "this ecology thing" was just a passing fad, that the whole "environmental bag" would end up in the hands of the long-haired flower children and the so-called conservationist and wildlife nuts who are more concerned with trees, animals, fish, and birds than they are with people.

When President Nixon's surprise invasion of Cambodia pushed everything else out of the headlines, friends of mine said "I told you so" and chided, "Whatever became of the ecology?"

The answer is that it's still very much with us. My desk is loaded every day with a plague of publicity handouts from the most unlikely industries, lobbyist associations, environmental groups, politicians, and just plain citizens. There are so many people trying to get into the environmental act that the endless announcements, their boastful achievements, their ambitious plans for the ecological future constitute a form of "word pollution."

Some of the young leaders of Environmental Action—the people who organized Earth Day—charge that some of the big companies and industrial associations are trying to solve the environmental crisis through highly-financed public relations campaigns; that such organizations would do well to turn those tens of thousands of publicity dollars back into cleansing their factory emissions into our air and rivers.

Actually, such goodwill spending is but an oil-drop in the Atlantic compared with the billions of dollars needed to tackle the mountains of gunk polluting the ecology. The true significance of this spending is that it demonstrates industry's sensitivity to the public concern about the environmental crisis. And in the long run it will be the people's insistence on a viable ecology and a decent place to live that will force the polluters to correct the situation.

Up on Capitol Hill, the politicians already have labeled ecology as the greatest political issue to come along since motherhood. Democratic Senators Muskie of Maine, Nelson of Wisconsin, Jackson of Washington, and McGovern of South Dakota moved in on the environmental crisis early with antipollution legislative proposals.

Then last week President Nixon finally acted to establish the new Environmental Protection Agency to marshal the federal government's scattered bureaus dealing with environmental problems under one umbrella. The move had two interesting aspects. First, it served notice to Democrats that they would not be the only ones to play pollution politics in the 1970 and '72 elections. Secondly, Mr. Nixon discarded recommendations from a White House commission on government reorganization, and from his own Interior Secretary Walter Hickel, that the government's antipollution machinery be concentrated under Hickel as a Cabinet secretary of a Department of Environmental Affairs and Natural Resources which would have superseded the old Interior Department.

Instead, by creating the independent Environmental Protection Agency, Mr. Nixon has direct control of the organization—another sign of the political potency of ecology and environment in future elections.

As a matter of fact, there are some political pros around Washington who are speculating that, with the Vietnam War being phased out and both the Republicans and Democrats tooling up for an assault on pollution, it may not be long before the new Environmental Protection Agency is bigger than the Pentagon. And they were only half joking.

The other day I went down to the little Appalachian mountain town of Saltville, Virginia, to do a story on the proposed closing of the Olin chemical company's soda ash factory there. Saltville gets its name from the fact that it's located on top of a gigantic underground salt dome that has been mined since 1785. This plus quantities of limestone from the nearby hills provides an abundance of basic materials which go into the complex process of making soda ash, a chemical vital to glass and other US industry.

For some 85 years, the Saltville operation has been using the waters of the north fork of the Holston River to make soda ash, dumping residue saline water back into the stream. The Olin company says it has tried to be a good neighbor and keep the river pollution to a minimum, but for years towns and industries along the Holston in Tennessee have complained that the salt-hardened water has cost millions in downstream dollars every year in industrial damage and in softening the water again.

However, the Saltville soda ash production literally outgrew the river. Olin engineers were able to keep the saline pollution within the limits set by Virginia's Water Control Commission, but about a year ago new federal standards ten times more stringent went into effect. The Olin company says it is economically and technologically impossible to continue making soda ash in Saltville without violating the new antipollution standards. They will be forced to close down.

When I got there last week, the town of 2,800 people was still in a state of community shock. It means that more than seven hundred of the plant's nine hundred jobs will lose a $10 million annual payroll. The surrounding counties will be minus some $25 million in taxes.

Although the Olin company has asked the government for permission to phase out the shutdown over a two-year period to ease the shock to the community, it seems inevitable that production must stop if the Holston River is ever to be clean.

Meanwhile, seven hundred workers and their families are in limbo. Their only crime is that of trying to earn a living.

It's a situation which is going to arise more and more as the nation moves to clean up the environment before the combined pollutants strangle us all.

But while man must concern himself with preserving the redwoods, saving the wetlands and the whales, conserving the wilderness for the bald eagle, the otter, and the moose—man must also be concerned for man.

We all are going to have to pay more in taxes and effort to clean up the ecological mess we have made. But the most costly, most unfair, and most cruel tax that can be assessed on an individual in the name of the environment is unemployment.

No reasonable government or society can tell seven hundred Saltville workers to go sit on the banks of the Holston River and watch it purify itself as reward for giving up their jobs. There are no calories in Appalachia's spectacular scenery.

There can be no healthy environment—or no chance of victory over pollution—if the economy is not also strong and vigorous. This goes for Saltville as well as the country.

And let's project that idea a bit to include Detroit and the nation's automotive industry. It has been estimated that one out of every ten Americans either directly or indirectly gain their livelihood from automobiles. In terms of transportation, virtually all two hundred million of us are involved.

It is also generally accepted that the internal combustion engine—the automobile—is responsible for sixty percent of the pollutants which smog up our air. American exhaust pipes spew out some ninety million tons of the stuff a year. Not counting the cost of increasing diseases, the nation's economic loss due to air pollution is estimated at $30 billion annually, including a half billion dollars to farm crops alone.

For these reasons alone, the drive to de-pollute the automobile is fully justified. After all, the greatest single group of polluters in the country are not the factories, the power plants, or smelters of metals. It is the automobile driver—more than one hundred million of us across the country who buy the gasoline and oil, turn the key in the ignition, and drive merrily along our polluted expressways and turnpikes.

So the thinking among many engineers is that there can be no real progress to banish smog and cleanse the air until we get rid of the fossil fueled reciprocating engine.

So eventually someone will come up with an efficient steam or electric drive—possibly even a nuclear engine—to replace today's super-cylindered wonders. Maybe even the gasoline and diesel engine would be outlawed. And the now de-polluted, mystery-powered motor car might not be built in Detroit at all.

The streets and highways no longer would be a source of smog. Oil refineries would work only part time. The ponderosa pines would appear on the mountains above Los Angeles. The Statue of Liberty could be seen from the Empire State Building. Emphysema and other lung diseases would be drastically reduced. Everything would be wonderful—except what do you say to some 360,000 Detroit autoworkers who would be thrown out of work?

This would not be allowed to happen, of course—at least not all at once—because the economic stakes are too high. Besides, the skills and plant capacity to make highway rolling stock are concentrated in the Detroit area.

But someone—both in private industry and in government—had better start thinking about what to do with people like the soda ash workers of Saltville when environmental necessity abolishes employment.

In Sweden, I understand that if an industry wants to shut down an operation or relocate a plant, the employer is required to provide other jobs for his workers and pay the costs of moving an employee and his family to the new job site.

In this country it may be a problem for a cooperative solution involving the employer, the labor unions, and the government.

It has been proposed that one way to solve the problem of junk automobiles, some twenty million of which are now scattered across the land, is to tack on a $30 disposal fee when the motorist buys a new vehicle. This would ensure the worn-out cars would be collected for demolition and recycling into scrap steel.

If we can provide an ecological solution for the junk automobile in the name of the environment, we should be able to come up with a solution to take care of these workers forced out of jobs in the war against pollution.