5 Acts That Saved the American Environment

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The annual Earth Day is ignored by some, cherished by others, but even among those who celebrate the day, the event brings mixed emotions. There is great concern, even anger, over environmental challenges, such as the lack of action to fight global warming. Yet there is certainly appreciation for the great progress made since the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970. Earth Day can’t claim all the credit for the following environmentally friendly acts that have improved the American landscape in the past generation or two … but the annual event’s role in raising awareness of environmental issues certainly hasn’t hurt. Here are five developments, either through laws or in human behavior, that have had a positive environmental impact in the United States since that first Earth Day.


5. Clean Air Act

Air pollution fills the air in downtown Pittsburgh, circa 1940. University of Pittsburgh Collection

Air pollution fills the sky in downtown Pittsburgh, circa 1940. University of Pittsburgh Collection

Our modern sensibilities cannot begin to comprehend the terrible state of air quality in the United States in the mid-20th century. Industrial plants bellowed untreated exhaust into the air. Vehicles burning leaded gas, with not a single pollution control device, belched other poisons into the air. In 1970, Life Magazine famously predicted, “In a decade, urban dwellers will have to wear gas masks to survive air pollution.” One public figure predicted hundreds of thousands of annual deaths from air pollution in “smog disasters” in the 1970s. The Clean Air Act, signed in 1963, predated the first Earth Day by seven years, but most of its most notable provisions took effect in the 1970s and later. Amendments to that act resulted in catalytic converters and other pollution control devices on cars; scrubbers and other pollution controls on factory exhausts; and greater awareness and efforts to fight smog and the depletion of the ozone layer.


4. Endangered Species Act

Bald eagle populations have rebounded dramatically in the past 40 years.

The bald eagle is one of the great success stories of the Endangered Species Act. © Jason Mrachina

Awareness of endangered wildlife had been building for years before the first Earth Day. With solid evidence that some iconic species — including the bald eagle, the national symbol of the U.S. — were on the brink of extinction, President Richard Nixon signed the Endangered Species Act into law in December 1973. As with any government action, critics of the Endangered Species Act make some valid points; there are many examples of the law halting construction projects worth tens of millions of dollars to protect obscure species that are found in other habitats. But just take a look at that image of the eagle. This iconic bird, once down to roughly 400 nesting pairs in the continental U.S., has rebounded — thanks in large part to the Endangered Species Act — to more than 11,000 pairs in 2007, when the bird was removed from the endangered list. Other notable species that have escaped the threat of extinction include the American crocodile, the gray wolf and the whooping crane.


3. Clean Water Act

A fire boat breaks up oil slicks in the aftermath of the 1969 fire on the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland. © Cleveland Public Library Collection

A fire boat breaks up oil slicks near a charred bridge in the aftermath of the 1969 fire on the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland. © Cleveland Public Library Collection

In one infamous incident that Cleveland officials would certainly rather forget, Cleveland’s oily and polluted Cuyahoga River caught on fire in 1969. Many people have heard that story, but few realize that wasn’t an aberration; the river had caught on fire several times before, including a 1952 blaze that caused far more damage. The Cuyahoga was hardly alone as a toxic waterway in that era; raw sewage, industrial wastes and other contaminants were routinely dumped into waterways. The Clean Water Act, passed in October 1972, cracked down on these practices, while also providing funds for many cities and towns across the country to upgrade their wastewater treatment facilities. The law provides for hefty penalties for polluters; in early 2014, a coal company agreed to a record $27.5 million fine for violating the Clean Water Act. In addition, the CWA has also helped raise awareness of the dangers of water pollution from storm water, industrial and agricultural sources.


2. Environmental Protection Agency

Air pollution from cars and factories obscures the sky in Kansas City in this vintage photo.

Air pollution from cars and factories obscures the sky in Kansas City in this vintage photo.

We’ve come so far in environmental awareness and in cleaning up the planet in recent decades that many Americans are convinced the proverbial “heavy lifting” in this area is mostly complete. This has led many people to become either indifferent, or, in the case of some conservatives, outright hostile to environmental concerns. But when Republican President Richard Nixon issued an executive order to create the Environmental Protection Agency in December 1970, environmentalism was very much a bipartisan issue. According to the EPA website, in its first year alone, the EPA referred more than 150 pollution cases to the Department of Justice for prosecution, in some cases citing legislation that had been on the books for years, but rarely enforced (such as the 1899 Rivers and Harbors Act).

The EPA has been credited with reducing air-pollution emissions from cars and factories by up to one-half in its first two decades of existence. Other EPA acts included initiatives to ban ozone-depleting chemicals, limit the emissions of greenhouse gases, and clean up toxic waste sites across the U.S. Critics today bemoan the agency’s strict regulations on issues such as wetlands protection, and some claim the agency frequently abuses its power. Yet there is no denying the EPA’s many achievements through the years.


1. The Environmental Movement

College student Gary Anderson (right) designed the universal recycling logo in a contest tied to the first Earth Day in 1970. © Gary Anderson

College student Gary Anderson (right) designed the universal recycling logo for the first Earth Day in 1970. © Gary Anderson

Give Earth Day credit here. For more than a generation, the annual event has helped drive awareness of environmental issues, and fostered a sense of both individual and corporate duty and responsibility. Civic groups organize cleanups of local streams and roadsides; youth groups collect batteries, recyclables and other items. Today, environmental concepts are taught to students from kindergarten on, and only the most clueless individuals do things — such as dumping used oil down storm drains — that were once quite routine. One of the greatest benefits of this heightened environmental awareness is the practice of recycling. Although even ancient cultures were known to use recycled goods, for most of the 20th century, the United States and the rest of the developed world embraced the disposable use of most items, creating a “throwaway culture.” That began to change in the early 1970s, with the opening of the first recycling plants. By the early 1990s, many cities and towns began offering curbside recycling collection, encouraging everyone to participate. Today, recycling bins dot the landscape, from the entrances to big box stores to rural greenways. By the way, that three-step recycling logo that is now recognized by billions of people around the world is a product of that first Earth Day in 1970. In celebration of that first event, Container Corporation of America sponsored an art contest asking students to come up with a logo to symbolize the recycling process. A University of Southern California student, Gary Anderson, provided the winning design. Almost a half-century later, that design lives on, as does Earth Day.

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The author is a longtime professional journalist who has interviewed everyone from presidential contenders to hall of fame athletes to rock 'n' roll legends while covering politics, sports, and other topics for both local and national publications and websites. His latest passions are history, geography and travel. He's traveled extensively around the United States seeking out the hidden wonders of the country.