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phoenixdoglover On June - 16 - 2014
Industrial waste discharges into the Cuyahoga River, 1973.

Industrial waste discharges into the Cuyahoga River, 1973.

In June 1969, 45 years ago this month, the Cuyahoga River caught fire. It wasn’t the first time for this industrialized waterway, but on this occasion the fire garnered the attention of the nation, and at a time when environmental degradation was a burning [sic] issue. A waterway catching fire was just what the environmental movement needed to speed along Federal legislation mandating widespread pollution control, with the objective of restoring our rivers and lakes so they would be “swimmable and fishable” once again.

That legislation, the Water Pollution Control Amendments of 1972, was to be both an instrument of recovery for the aquatic environment, and the driving force behind my nascent career as an Environmental Engineer. So what better time than on this 45th anniversary of the conflagration to recall the liberal legends who were so instrumental in elevating and codifying our national health, safety and environmental laws? BUT before I get to the names, let’s recap the history.

The post-war period from the early 1950’s to the mid 70’s was a time for sweeping Federal legislation across many areas related to the “general welfare” of citizens. Our success in manufacturing had created not just an economic juggernaut, but a bunch of “externalities” as well: pollution, negative health impacts, and industrial injuries. So as we prospered it was appropriate to use some of our wealth to reduce the negative side-effects for the benefit of workers and their families.

The defining legislation came in two waves. The first wave occurred in the mid-to-late 50’s, with a combination of infrastructure, social policy, and regulatory legislation that was limited, but a harbinger of more to come. Here’s a list of the notable laws that captured the can-do spirit of that era:

  1. Refugee Relief Act
  2. Federal Unemployment Tax Act
  3. Air Pollution Control Act
  4. Fish and Wildlife Act
  5. Civil Rights Act
  6. National Defense Education Act
  7. Airport Construction Act

Then there was a pause, and for some time Civil Rights was the defining issue of the day. Environmental degradation accelerated; and a movement formed to press for more regulation of polluters, in part inspired by Rachel Carson’s book, Silent Spring. When the river caught fire in 1969, all hell broke loose. From 1970 to 1973, the following laws were passed, again embodying the spirit of the times:

  1. National Environmental Policy Act
  2. Urban Mass Transportation Act
  3. Family Planning Services and Population Research Act
  4. Occupational Safety and Health Act
  5. Housing and Urban Development Act
  6. Equal Employment Opportunity Act
  7. Federal Water Pollution Control Amendments
  8. Consumer Product Safety Act
  9. Endangered Species Act
  10. Clean Water Act

In each of the two periods outlined above, there was a single man most responsible for the final approvals and implementation of these laws; arguably the most significant, intensive collections of legislation passed in post war America. Those giants who made this happen, our liberal heroes for today, were: Dwight David Eisenhower, and Richard Milhous Nixon.

Ultimately, if one lives long enough, history reveals to us its quixotic path and God reveals his sense of humor. Such is the case today, for it was bedrock Republican conservatives, egged on by their liberal counterparts, who willingly embraced the social and environmental movements, signed the necessary legislation, and saved the Cuyahoga from a fiery death.

23 Responses so far.

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  1. GreenChica says:

    I wonder what happened to the GOPer brain between then and now that made them decide that responsible environmental stewardship is anti-American.

    • phoenixdoglover says:

      This is a mystery, because even the big business types have been grudging supporters of many of the environmental laws. Now don’t laugh! Years ago, manufacturers, mining, and energy companies were generally opponents, but you don’t hear much from them today? Why is that?

      Efficiency and cost savings. It turns out that environmental rules present an interesting choice to many of the big businesses: 1) invest in pollution control systems, or 2) invest in waste minimization. In turns out, one of those choices both reduces pollution and adds to the bottom line.

      I recently read an interview with Amory Lovins, who is an energy guru. He basically said the same thing about the energy sector. Private companies will choose energy efficiency and alternative energy sources over conventional ones, because PROFITS matter.

      Forget about Congress! When it comes to energy efficiency, and environmental regulation, we have all we need to make big gains. I think Obama realized this over the past year; hence, initiatives to reduce greenhouse gases within the framework of existing laws.

      And the right wing howls!

  2. MurphTheSurf3 says:

    Welcome to the Planet….glad you joined us. Excellent first contribution.

    Fascinating how you wove all of these threads together to make a point- not one of the ones you stated (although they were excellent)- the point I got out of this was that bipartisanship, cooperation between parties, leadership that was interested in governing as in winning elections did at one time exist in U.S. politics and its existence was robust one.

    The current environment- which came to the fore first in the years of Clinton Impeachment and the Contract with American- has so poisoned the waters of inter-party cooperation for Republicans that anyone daring to drink from them on the GOP side dies an elector death.

    In such an environment no Ike or Nixon could arise……a warning of a dire future and the necessity of one party rule.

    • phoenixdoglover says:

      Thanks, Murph. Yeah, you got my point. That’s the nature of my prose. I like to weave and outline and let you be the judge.

      But I often ponder -- when did we go crazy? Was it the shock of Vietnam, the oil embargo, and the Iran hostage crisis? How could we follow Carter with Reagan? When I look at graphs of economic trends in the US, there often seems to be a break-point in the late 70’s/early 80’s. Bad policy or something else?

      • MurphTheSurf3 says:

        Carter was a response to the Nixon/Ford scandals and the white knight’s armor was soon so tarnished we would not let him lead us for another 4 years. I think we would have been better off with Ford anyway. Carter was largely a fraud- sorry, but he was, media created out of anger at Ford for the pardon.

        In terms of what I focused on- and what you led me to- the key for me is the decision by Big Money in this country, and I would argue globally, to try to buy up government. This is a 90’s phenomenon and it continues to play out. Big Money’s strategy involves a total war set of tactic and with their money they control the fate of most of those elected. The fact is that the candidate with the most money wins 94 percent of the time- per Pew.

        Given that, those who give the most money control the message of the candidates and their future votes. When the very rich are cynical, self aggrandizing, and self righteously selfish, then that become the tenor of the party they sponsor/control.

      • PDL, I think it was a seemingly delayed aftershock of the whole turbulent 60s era. The GOP was scared shyteless by the counter culture including the more radical elements like the Weather Underground and the Black Panthers. To this day, many GOPTPers bring up Obama’s once brief and long ago relationship to Bill Ayers.

        I think it took them a little while to get a bead on how to help lessen their fear by political means. After Nixon (the criminal) and Ford the pardoning stumblebum, Carter’s win was pretty much in the bag.

        Do to the rising influence of Jerry Falwell and the “Moral Majority,” growing tension in the middle east and so on, the GOP saw a chance to “get back,” to an older, more American spirit of the west type of environment. You know, John Wayne’s America. Reagan was a natural for the job.

        The counter-culture was dying a slow death and was dead altogether by the end of Carter’s administration. I think the events of the sixties, inspired by the counter-culture STILL scare the crap out of the GOPTP and the religious right.

      • GreenChica says:

        That’s right around the time that the Christian right started taking over the GOP.

  3. monicaangela says:

    Not so fast….

    You can’t really leave this legislation in the lap of Eisenhower and Nixon. The real liberal behind this is Henry M. Jackson.
    Jackson authored the National Environmental Policy Act.

    Richard M. Nixon was president of the United States from 1969 to 1974. Despite his accomplishments as president, they are often overshadowed by his illegal actions during the Watergate scandal. Rather than face impeachment, Nixon became the only president to resign from office. Although not remembered for his environmental stewardship, Nixon signed into law some of the most important environmental legislation in the nation’s history.

    Despite his signing into law some of the most extensive environmental law in U.S. history, many environmentalists criticized Nixon’s environmental record. For example, Nixon constantly placed the need for energy development over environmental protection. After signing the Clean Air Act into law, Nixon often attempted to extend deadlines for emission reductions, impounded billions of dollars that Congress had earmarked to implement the law, and attempted to circumvent NEPA by exempting coal production and use from environmental impact statements.

    In addition, Nixon mandated that all environmental regulation must undergo cost-benefit analysis, which contradicted the provisions of NEPA and often overestimated the economic costs of protecting the environment. Nixon also gave the EPA authority to decrease more restrictive state clean air standards, ultimately increasing air pollution in areas that were previously well below federal emission standards.

    Many of Nixon’s successes as president are obscured by the events that eventually led to his resignation. Did he sign the legislation? Yes, But…..

    • MilesLong says:

      Nixon, along with the top-tier management of Kaiser Permanente, pretty much created the for-profit healthcare industry.

      Miles “Only Nixon Could Go To China -- Spock” Long

    • phoenixdoglover says:

      Yes, Monica, Nixon was a complex personality, and it is difficult to reconcile his various actions. At bottom, I think he was a political cynic. So I was being a bit tongue-in-cheek describing him as a “hero” of the environmental movement. In fact, he was strongly disliked by environmentalists, but even more so by anti-war activists, and by those who couldn’t stand his sweaty upper lip.

      But he did sign all of those acts for whatever scheming reasons, and the fact that they got to his desk was evidence that Congress also was working.

      • Hey PDL. Nixon became a very paranoid individual during the last few years of his presidency. I really think he had a genuine mental health issue.

        The anti-war movement scared the crap out of him, and so did the whole counter-culture. I think he really believed that a very large and very violent revolution was going to actually happen, during his presidency. In a very real sense though, a lot of people in America thought the same thing, but Nixon actually believed that such a revolution would be directed at him personally and I don’t think it’s a stretch to think he possibly feared being dragged through the streets and suffer a Mussolini type death.

        He got pretty strange in his last year in the oval office. I believe the whole Watergate burglary was a result of this “paranoia.”

  4. Kudos PDL, well done. Thanks for writing this informative piece of history.

    Funny, but today’s radical ideologues in the GOPTP would label Nixon AND Eisenhower as liberals. Probably Barry Goldwater, as well.

    In today’s GOPTP, the phrase “general welfare,” is almost meaningless. To them it’s just an old phrase they interpret as meaning to take from the rich to give to lazy people and old hippies that are very concerned about global climate change. This is the general attitude that is so prevalent among our Republican congressmen and women.

  5. Harleigh says:

    Wow. I was living in Louisville Ky back then and had to spend a month in Cleveland at a Burroughs computer training class for my job. I had forgotten about classmates that told me that astonishing tale but was not surprised since downriver where I lived it was considered stupid to actually get into the Ohio river. The funniest part was when Ralph Perk, the Mayor of Cleveland, was at a big plumbing convention and was waving a welding torch! He caught his own hair on fire!!! Bwahahaha and it made the news. You just can’t make this shit up…. or forget it either. The bartender at the Holiday Inn where we were staying told us that when God gives merika an enema the tube goes up and in Cleveland through the Cuyahoga river.


  6. Nirek says:

    PDL, first thing, WELCOME to the Planet. Great article, too. I was in Vietnam when the river caught fire.
    Ad said to give LBJ some credit and I agree. He signed more Bills into law than anyone.
    Eisenhower was the last decent Republican to be President IMO.
    I too am an environmentalist just not by profession. To me the environment is almost my religion. We must take care of it as it is finite. We need to get off the oil standard and use solar and other renewable energies ASAP.
    Thanks for the article.
    Peace.

    • phoenixdoglover says:

      Nirek, thanks for the reminder about LBJ. I have a sort of blind spot for him. I think it’s called the Vietnam War.

      You mentioning solar energy reminds me of another topic I want to dig into. Solar subsidies -- are they too much or too little? This is something that bothers me, because I want solar to succeed, but I worry that the subsidies are too aggressive.

      • sillylittleme says:

        I don’t think they are aggressive enough. IMHO. Although I too worry that after we’ve solar paneled the nation they will be receiving subsidies until someone notices that we are still subsidizing companies that should be paying those subsidies back in a form of tax, much like oil companies today.

  7. AdLib says:

    PDL, it is pretty astounding to read that list of accomplishments that took place during that era, so many we take for granted as being cornerstones of environmental and social protections yet didn’t exist beforehand (and some of which have been whittled down by Republican politicians).

    Of course when it comes to the Civil Rights Act which was arguably the biggest achievement to come out of that era, JFK and LBJ should get their well deserved nods.

    What seems to have happened in the times since Nixon signed a variety of environmental laws and the current GOP that believes in terminating all of those laws and the EPA, is that a vision for America being prosperous has shrunken down to just the wealthiest being prosperous…at any cost.

    Theodore Roosevelt was a Republican too and his aggressive actions to set up a national park system and preserve the environment was unprecedented. Of course, he was his own man as a Republican, he may not have much in common with today’s Republicans but he was one of the greatest Presidents (along with Lincoln) that the GOP ever brought America.

    There is nothing political about Americans having unpolluted air to breathe, water to drink and land to live on. I think most Republicans and Democrats would agree about having a healthy environment in which to raise their families.

    It is the wealthy though who see the environment as irrelevant to their growing their wealth and since they call the tune for the mainstream GOP, it is Republican policy to despise pollution control because it interferes with corporate greed.

    With all the disasters that Climate Change, fracking and deep sea oil drilling are causing, dwarfing that iconic day when the Cuyahoga River caught fire (NYC and New Orleans have flooded, drinking water can be set on fire in fracking areas and earthquakes are being generated, the BP gulf oil spill and many spills from pipelines in the US since then), it is a pity that there seems to be less pressure today about government stopping the ongoing pollution and destruction (the RW is frantic about building the Keystone Pipeline and increasing the probable pollution of land, air and water).

    At the very least, anyone who has kids, nephews or nieces or grandkids, should be very vocal about recognizing that we are not the last generation to live on this Earth and that leaving a poisonous world for those we claim to care about would be a horrible thing to do.

    • phoenixdoglover says:

      Ad Lib, I appreciate your passion about this issue. I developed a passion for the environment when I was a teenager. I was very much an outdoor kid. The woods and the swamps were a playground for me and my friends. But the destruction of those places was pretty evident. And then there were startling indications; like rivers in Vermont running brilliant red or green, from the dyes used in woolen mills.

      But while I was passionate about the environment, I was not so thrilled about environmentalists. I just didn’t see the sufficiency of all the rhetoric and protest. I wanted to do something to turn around the destruction. So in freshman year of college, I switched from electrical engineering to environmental engineering. I credit a visiting professor from New Zealand for inspiring me. He hosted an intersession course called, “Field Trips to Water and Sewage Treatment Plants”. Sounds fascinating, huh?

  8. MilesLong says:

    And let’s not forget the pinnacle argument for your thesis PDL: Abraham Lincoln…

    This reminds me of a story:

    One day a man left home to go to work and one of the neighbor boys was giving away puppies from a new litter. The sign said: “Free Republican Puppies.”

    The same scene played out for the next two days. On the third day the word “Republican” was scratched out and replaced by the word “Democratic.”

    The man just had to know why the little boy had changed the sign, so he asked. The boy explained, “When the puppies were born they hadn’t opened their eyes yet. Now they’re old enough so that their eyes are opened so now they can see.”

    Miles “Kids Say The Darnedest Things” Long


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