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Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Thank God for Regulations
distributed 3/24/17 - ©2017

Many people seem to have forgotten how bad "the good old days" really were. Some things in our collective past were pretty awful. I would not want to go back to the way things were when I was a youth.

And so I give thanks to God for things that have made our world a better place. I'll even be so bold as to lift up my specific thanks for federal regulations and the Environmental Protection Agency.

It has been more than 50 years since US legislation started working for clean air (beginning in 1963), and 45 years since the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972. After so many decades of legislation, rule-making, court cases, enforcement, technology and changing expectations, we've become accustomed to smokestacks that don't belch smoke, and cars that don't leave clouds of exhaust. We've come to expect lakes and rivers that aren't toxic.

If today's world seems normal -- if we think it has always been this way -- then we may not remember why all of those environmental laws are so necessary. Why, some forgetful politicians might even think that it would be a fine thing to get rid of environmental regulations, and to diminish (or even demolish) the EPA.

Today, I want to share two personal stories about how those long-ago laws made the communities that I lived in cleaner and safer. I'll encourage you to find similar stories, so that we can speak convincingly about the value of appropriate regulations.

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I grew up in Omaha, Nebraska, during the 1950s and 60s. Back then, the city that had huge stockyards and big meat packing businesses. As a normal business practice, the slaughterhouses dumped untreated waste directly into the Missouri River. The river flowing downstream from Omaha was an open sewer.

In 1969, Time Magazine wrote, "Among other horrors, while Omaha's meat packers fill the Missouri River with animal grease balls as big as oranges, St. Louis takes its drinking water from the muddy lower Missouri because the Mississippi is far filthier." Most rivers were badly polluted.

The Clean Water Act stopped that dumping of wastes and pollution, and restored many rivers to some degree of health. The Clean Water Act got a handle on all kinds of "point source" pollution from businesses and sewage treatment plants. I found the Time Magazine quote in a 2012 article titled, "Happy 40th Birthday, Clean Water Act", which has other reminders about how bad things were. Before the Clean Water Act, two-thirds of waterways were deemed unsafe for fishing and swimming. It continues:

There was public pressure at the time to sign the act into law. In June 1969, an oil slick on the Cuyahoga river in Ohio actually caught fire, burning for half an hour and causing fifty thousand dollars in damage. Lake Erie was deemed a 'giant cesspool,' with only three of its 62 beaches rated completely safe for swimming.

An EPA staffer is quoted, "In the 40 years since, the Clean Water Act has kept tens of billions of pounds of sewage, chemicals and trash out of our waterways. Urban waterways have gone from wastelands to centers of redevelopment and activity."

Thank God for the Clean Water Act and the Environmental Protection Agency!

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I left Omaha in 1970 to go to college in Colorado Springs, Colorado -- a far more scenic location! Tucked up against the Rocky Mountains, the Springs had some days when air pollution settled over the city, but the real horrors of bad air were found 60 miles north in Denver. It was not unusual to look north from campus and see a thick haze of Denver's dirty air rolling over the high ridge between the two cities.

I have vivid memories of one winter day (at the end of January, 1971) when I was visiting Boulder, 20 miles northwest of Denver. Dramatic rock formations rise up from the very edge of the town. That morning, Denver's pollution was blowing up against the foothills, and the smog was so thick that I could not see those huge flatiron rocks at all from only eight blocks away. On a clear day, visibility of over 100 miles is normal. That morning, pollution cut visibility to less than one mile.

My personal impressions of Denver air pollution are confirmed in a recent report from the Regional Air Quality Council]. Bullet points note that: "1970's-early 1980's the Denver area exceed all EPA air quality standards nearly 200 days annually; Denver area had the highest carbon monoxide levels in the country; Infamous 'Brown Cloud' hung over the city and made national magazine covers; Denver rivaled Los Angeles for poor air quality".

The report also documents that Denver's air quality improved dramatically from the late 1980s, even as population and vehicle miles traveled increased. State rules imposed an automobile emissions inspection program for the metropolitan areas that has curbed the most-polluting vehicles. Across the country, federal rules cleaned up notorious pollution from oil refineries and power plants, and catalytic converters on automobiles became mandatory on all new cars.

Denver -- where we now live -- still struggles with the brown cloud. Lots of oil and gas drilling in our region is a dangerous new source of smog-creating pollution. But even so, Denver's air is dramatically cleaner than it was 40-some years ago.

Similar improvements are found in other cities across the country. Air quality standards set a target, and new technologies driven by those regulations make achieving the targets possible. We can breathe more easily in our cities, not because of individual behavior changes or consumer choices, but because we have had to meet legal standards.

Because of that cleaner air, people in the US are healthier. A study five years ago found that the Clean Air Act has saved us $22 trillion dollars in health care costs.

Thank God for the Clean Air Act and the Environmental Protection Agency!

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My life in Nebraska and Colorado gives me these two vivid images of nasty pollution that was cleaned up by governmental regulation. There are no longer grease balls in US rivers, and our cities don't choke from industrial and automobile pollution.

My two stories are not exceptional. The United States in about 1970 had far more pollution and far more trash than seems imaginable. Just a month ago, Popular Science ran an article, "This is what America looked like before the EPA cleaned it up: It wasn't pretty." A series of photographs reminds those of us who have been around for 50+ years what it was like. It is a good education for those of you who are younger.

The budget recently proposed by President Trump cuts funding for the Environmental Protection Agency by 31%. Legislation may soon be proposed that would do away with the EPA completely. Environmental regulations from the end of the Obama administration are being repealed. Lots of other regulations are belittled as "job-killing" or "over-reach."

In this political climate, we need to remind ourselves about the great good that has come about through these laws and regulations. We need to be able to tell personal stories about bad situations that have been improved through governmental standards and protections. We need to challenge those who write off all regulations as evil.

I do thank God for the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, the EPA, and other institutions that have helped us clean up our polluted world. Through laws and government agencies, there is less pollution despoiling God's creation.

Will you help me tell these stories of healing and hope?

Shalom!

Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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