BEWARE OF CHANGES IN ENVIRONMENTAL LAWS
If asked to list three of the most important environmental laws ever passed in this country, I would have no hesitation in naming the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, and the Endangered Species Act. Most people who remember how things were before those pieces of legislation were enacted would probably agree with my assessment. But when economic times get tough, as they are now, the environment can serve as a scapegoat for people with self-serving agendas. When that happens, we need to be careful not to lower our ecological guard.
Although free enterprise is generally lauded in the United States, when it begins to work against the common good, government intervention may be necessary. This is especially true when commerce intrudes on common assets, that is, air, water, and the natural resources of our native plants and animals. All three of these commodities belong as much to any one of us as to any other, regardless of wealth, land holdings, or social position.
Despite the negative feelings many people have about Congress, in the 1970s the House and Senate acted wisely and decisively with regard to safeguarding air, water, and wildlife. The passage of the Clean Water, Clean Air, and Endangered Species Acts has benefited the whole country.
In 1972, the Clean Water Act established strict guidelines about how our nation's water should be used, and disposed of. Industries, including facilities associated with the federal government and urban centers, were held responsible for their actions. Though the act may not address everything it should, today, the United States has the highest water standards of any country in the world. This would not be true were it not for the Clean Water Act.
When the Endangered Species Act (ESA) became law in 1973, much of our wildlife was in a downward spiral with no good ending in sight. The American alligator was so rare that most herpetologists, scientists who study reptiles, had never seen one in the wild. The closest most people came to seeing a bald eagle was looking at the back of a quarter. And to the general public, wolves were imaginary animals found only in fairy tales and a well-known composition by Prokofiev.
Today, thanks to the ESA, if you are in the right region of the country, you might well see any one of these impressive animals, or one of the many others that were put on the endangered species list. In essence, the protection afforded by the ESA saved several species from certain doom. And it did so without fulfilling the dire predictions from some quarters that protecting species in such a rigorous manner would quell progress. Though other species need to be added to the list, the program remains one of the ecological success stories of the last century.
And finally came the question, whose air is it anyway? Fortunately, Congress realized the correct answer: It is our air and we should all be guaranteed a breath of fresh air whenever we like, which means all the time. The Clean Air Act of 1977 enacted strong measures against air pollution from many of the most egregious offenders. Anyone visiting Gary, Indiana, or Birmingham, Alabama, four decades ago was greeted by an industrial miasma that assaulted the eyes and nose. The air was thick, with colors that ranged from gray to yellow to red, and odors from acrid to putrid. On a still day the polluted air was suspended above the city.
significant environmental gains achieved through these laws, without dire
economic consequences, some people persist in wanting to weaken the regulations
in all three of these nation-saving legislative acts. Anytime you hear
someone, whether politician, industrialist, or just plain folk, talk about
the need to curtail any of these laws, take a careful look at who is going
to benefit. I guarantee it will not be you. Beware, also, of rhetoric
that uses slogans like "creating jobs" or "being good for
the economy." Such catchphrases are presented as if they are incompatible
with protecting the environment. They are not. But one thing is certain--the
congressional decisions of the 1970s will be hard acts to follow.
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