By Jennie Young
This is the 40-year anniversary of The Clean Water Act. Usually for such accomplishment I offer a silent salute and that’s about it. I assume that’s common. This time it’s different. We’ve begun a troubling inching backwards toward the conditions which spurred the Clean Water Act of 1972. We’ll do well to perk up and pay attention. If we learn anything from this summer of extreme drought, it’ll be to treat water as the precious, finite thing it is.
Forty years ago, Ohio’s Cuyahoga River caught fire, nearly destroying two railroad bridges, and Time magazine noticed and told the nation. Events which led to The Clean Water Act were put in motion with an environmental senator from Maine leading the charge. Wonder why it took so long since the Cuyahoga, over a period of a hundred years, is calculated to have erupted in flames over 13 times. Time painted an ugly image for readers: “chocolate brown, oily, bubbling with surface gases;” “a constant fire hazard.” It was dead with vast amounts of oil and industrial pollutants literally smothering the river. Streams and lakes across the country were polluted by industrial waste with these notables: the Hudson River at 170 times the safe limit of bacterial levels and Lake Erie, according to Time, “in danger of dying by suffocation.” For certain sure, we hadn’t been paying much mind.
I’m admittedly rueful as I write of the splendid bipartisan accomplishment of 40 years ago. President Richard Nixon, inexplicably out of step, vetoed The Clean Water Act. Both houses of Congress overrode his veto and for 30 years the landmark law flourished. With bipartisan mind we cleaned up our waterways. The primary goals were bold but basic: our nation’s waters would no longer be open sewers for industrial, agricultural and municipal pollution. You’ll notice I said “30 years,” not “40.” Well, here we go….
Bipartisan support, the political collaboration, evaporated, starting about 10 years ago. Industrial polluters began to gain traction, and two years ago, with the 2010 election, the tide dramatically turned to their advantage. Since, loopholes and lax enforcement have unleashed the toxins. Close to home, here’s how it matters. By 2006, due primarily to the filling of streams with rubble from mountaintop removal mines, 55 percent of Southern Appalachian streams received a “poor biological health” rating.
Whatever your politics, try saying these words a few times. See how they resound in your personal values vault: Pollution Means Prosperity — Pollution Means Prosperity — Pollution Means Prosperity! That’s what our Congress (and statehouse) is eager to prove. I don’t wish to pick on anybody, but Pollution Means Prosperity is a Republican offspring up there in Washington and out there in Nashville.
If there’s a common area of pride in East Tennessee, it’s in our lakes and rivers and streams. I know what I think about Pollution Means Prosperity as I watch the protections of our waters slip away in deference to it. They need us this election season. That’s my truth. We each decide, our favorite waters in the balance.