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:
- Refugee Relief Act
- Federal Unemployment Tax Act
- Air Pollution Control Act
- Fish and Wildlife Act
- Civil Rights Act
- National Defense Education Act
- 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:
- National Environmental Policy Act
- Urban Mass Transportation Act
- Family Planning Services and Population Research Act
- Occupational Safety and Health Act
- Housing and Urban Development Act
- Equal Employment Opportunity Act
- Federal Water Pollution Control Amendments
- Consumer Product Safety Act
- Endangered Species Act
- 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.