Earth Day: Focusing on the Environment

Occupational Hazards, April 1990 | Go to article overview

Earth Day: Focusing on the Environment


EARTH DAY: FOCUSING ON THE ENVIRONMENT

Earth Day 1990, this year's 20th anniversary celebration of the global environment, will be marked by ceremonies held in virtually every city and village across the United States.

In 1970, when Earth Day was born, American eyes were opening to trouble on the environmental front. Earlier in the year, a slow-moving thermal inversion enveloped the East Coast in a cloud of industrial gases and automobile exhaust. Pollution levels climbed along the entire coastal area and approached the danger mark in New York City and Washington, D.C. In the Midwest, the fishing industry was crippled by reports of mercury contamination of waters in the Great Lakes. The contamination was traced to chemical plants in Michigan and Canada, and the specter of mercury poisoning in drinking water prompted Congressional action. In January 1970, President Nixon had signed the Environmental Policy Act, which established a Council of Environmental Policy, and required Federal agencies to take environmental considerations into account systematically in their planning and decision making. This law eventually led to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) later that same year.

Throughout the spring of 1970, students and youth groups mobilized a grass roots effort culminating on April 22, Earth Day 1970, when more than 20 million Americans participated in the largest organized demonstration concerning the environment in history. Ten thousand schools, 2,000 colleges and universities, and virtually every community in the United States took part.

It was just the beginning of a decade marked by heightened environmental awareness. In addition to the EPA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration was also created. Congress passed the Clean Water Act, strengthened the Clean Air Act and the Endangered Species Act by amendment. Congress also enacted other environmental legislation.

Then came the 1980s, "the most self-indulgent decade this country has seen this century," according to George Schaller, a wildlife biologist with Wildlife Conservation International in New York.

During the Reagan Administration, the drive for deregulation hurt EPA. The agency took substantial budget cuts. The White House Council on Environmental Quality was cut from 50 people to 8; and Secretary of the Interior James Watt threatened to open western lands to private development.

George Bush, though heir to the Reagan deregulatory legacy, has portrayed himself as an environmentalist during his campaign and in the Presidency. Bush has supported a bipartisan movement in Congress to elevate the office of EPA Administrator to cabinet status. This measure is expected by Washington insiders to pass Congress and be signed into law by Earth Day, which will be celebrated on the 22nd of this month.

At presstime, a compromise bill to reauthorize the Clean Air Act was being debated on the Senate floor. The $21 billion measure would cut harmful sulfur dioxide 10 million tons by the year 2000, and cap emissions thereafter. Washington sources say prospects for Senate passage look good. The House has yet to take floor action on a companion bill.

Preparations

Headquartered in Washington, D.C., and Palo Alto, Calif., Earth Day 1990 organizers have planned several outreach programs to heighten environmental awareness. Included among those initiatives are a distribution of pledges to be signed by citizens and distributed to local, State, and government officials and members of the media. The pledges are aimed at demonstrating "the sheer number of Americans who are willing to commit to a better environment and ... expect their lawmakers to do the same," Earth Day says.

In addition, Earth Day 1990 has developed "The Valdez Principles," a set of 10 guidelines for corporate conduct, which address such issues as the release of pollutants, reduction and disposal of waste, conservation and risk reduction to employees and surrounding communities, marketing of safe products and services, and disclosure of potential hazards. …

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