OF CHANGES IN ENVIRONMENTAL LAWS
March 1, 2009
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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