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This is the third installment of a three-part series examining historical incidents of air pollution and the individuals and organizations that have opposed regulation.

State of Georgia v Tennessee Copper: Keep Your Pollution on Your Side of the Border

In 1907, the State of Georgia sued the Tennessee Copper Company in the U.S. Supreme Court alleging that their pollution was killing all vegetation downwind from the Company’s smelter and raining “noxious gases,” causing injury to the State and its citizenry. In the final ruling, the court ruled in favor of the State of Georgia, stating, “It is a fair and reasonable demand on the part of a sovereign that the air over its territory should not be polluted on a great scale by sulphurous acid gas, that the forests on its mountains, be they better or worse, and whatever domestic destruction they have suffered, should not be further destroyed or threatened by the act of persons beyond its control…”

Supreme Court

The Supreme Court. (Photo via Creative Commons)

The Supreme Court issued an injunction and ordered the smelter shut down. It was the first successful lawsuit of its type in the United States, establishing that states did have the standing and right to take action against an entity whose pollution caused damage outside its State’s boundaries.

Don’t Take It Seriously Until Somebody Dies 

In 1948, the town of Donora, Pennsylvania, a Monongahela River Valley factory town 24 miles southeast of Pittsburgh, experienced a thermal inversion, causing poisonous smog to settle in the valley of 14,000 residents. Over a five-day period, 22 people and approximately 800 animals died, and a majority of the population was sickened. In a December 1948 New York Times article, two months after the event, experts stated that far more people were affected, but many refused to seek medical care, fearing retaliation from their employer, the smelter operator, U.S. Steel.   

The incident precipitated the Pennsylvania legislation into establishing the Division of Air Pollution Control in 1949. The federal government conducted inquiries into Donora as well, and in 1955 passed the Air Pollution Control Act. It was a step in the right direction, but the focus of this Act was to research the issue of pollution and how they might control it.

London has experienced noxious smog since the 13th Century. In 1285, Edward I, also known as Edward Longshanks (better known from Mel Gibson’s film Braveheart), King of England from 1239 to 1307, set up a commission to come up with a solution to the burning of coal – possibly influenced by his mother having to cut short a visit to Nottingham in 1257 because of “fumes from the burning of coal.” The solution: In 1306, a law was passed banning the burning of “sea coal,” a particularly low grade of coal, under threat of “grievous ransoms” (death).

"The Silent Highwayman," an illustration from Punch Magazine in July 1858, the year of "The Great Stink." The event occurred in London between July and August. The hot summer weather increased the pungency of the human waste and industrial effluence rotting in the River Thames.

“The Silent Highwayman,” an illustration from the July 1858 issue of Punch Magazine. This was the summer of “The Great Stink,” in which the hot weather increased the pungency of the human waste and industrial effluent rotting in the River Thames.

The law was evidently ignored by the general public. Coal was cheap and London continued experiencing “smog” events. Historical documents from 1873, 1880 and 1892 document significant deaths resulting from these events. And in December of 1952, London experienced one of the worst smog events in its history. At the time, it was estimated that 4,000 Londoners succumbed prematurely to death as a result of the coal produced smog. Recent research has upped this estimate to over 13,000. In 1956, the United Kingdom passed the “Clean Air Act,” its first modern pollution control legislation, to regulate the discharge of smoke from combustion.

In 1966, during the Thanksgiving week, a heat inversion over the Eastern Seaboard, from New Foundland to Virginia, caused pollution levels to spike. In New York City, carbon monoxide levels on November 24 registered 35 ppm; two days earlier, those readings had been at eight ppm. New York City estimated that 24 deaths per day were attributable to the pollution event, resulting in total deaths of between 250 to 400 people.

Maybe It Would be Healthful if We Did Something About This Mess

The next year, the Federal government passed the 1967 Air Quality Act. The Act was intended to address and improve air quality, with federal government enforcement oversight, and not just to study “techniques” to monitor and control air pollution, as was mandated in the Clean Air Act of 1963.  Upon signing the legislation in 1967, President Lyndon Baines Johnson quoted from the  14th Century Dante Alighieri’s epic poem, “Divine Comedy”, describing his vision of a journey through Hell, “… dirty water and black snow pour from the dismal air to …the putrid slush that waits for them below.” He quipped, “…isn’t it a forecast that fits almost any large American city today? …Don’t we really risk our own damnation every day by destroying the air that gives us life? …either we stop poisoning our air–or we become a nation in gas masks, groping our way through the dying cities and a wilderness of ghost towns that the people have evacuated…”

A Gustave Doré woodcut illustration from The Divine Comedy: The Inferno: Canto 10.

A Gustave Doré woodcut illustration from The Divine Comedy: The Inferno: Canto 10.

Unfortunately, its enforcement was left to the States, and little progress was made. Not a single state adopted any pollution control legislation or regulation. Under public pressure to do something about air pollution, the federal government finally stepped into the vacuum.  Under the stewardship of Senator Edward Muskie of Maine, the Clean Air Act of 1970 was passed, giving the Federal Government power to create and enforce clean air standards.  In the Senate it passed unanimously and the house with only one dissenting vote, a Congressman from Detroit, voicing concern for the automotive industry.  This was the same year the Earth Day movement was founded by Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson, and the EPA was created by executive order by then President Richard Nixon.   

The environmental legislation of the 1970s began to address and reverse environmental policies (or lack thereof) and damage inherited from generations before. In the 1970s, a large percentage of the lakes in the Adirondack Mountains of New York were too acidic to support fish and plant life due to emission from coal fired power plants in the Midwest. Thirty years later, thanks to regulations to reduce sulfur dioxide pollution from these plant, these lakes are now able to support fisheries. Rivers no longer catch fire. The Charles River in Boston was deemed safe for swimming in 2014, the first time in 50 years.

So What’s This Have to Do With Your Parents?

If you’ve read my previous article in this series, you were probably wondering why I made reference to my grandfather, mother and father. My grandfather’s generation just thought they were causing pollution, which would have only localized and minimal effect on the planet, something that could be cleaned up if it became too much of a nuisance. 

Photo Credit: Pixabay

Photo Credit: Pixabay

My parents saw the pollution their generation was causing and what their parents had left them, and pressured their elected officials to pass legislation to reduce pollution. Their generation addressed auto emissions, polluted rivers and acid rain. When they became aware that pollution was bad for the environment and the general health of the population, they took actions. My grandfather, mother and father’s generations did not know the effect their activities were having on climate change. Climate change only came into the public conscience as a problem and issue in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, emerging from the scientific community and becoming a global political policy issue and environmental cause.

We have seen that if there is a will and commitment, environmental degradation can be reversed  in a relatively short period. We have also seen that if no one is held accountable and no one takes action, one or two generation can wreak havoc. My father worries about acidification of the oceans and the effect it might have on his beloved Wellfleet oysters. At the age of 87, he served on a committee attempting to get a commercial wind turbine installed in his town. At 91 he installed a solar photovoltaic system on his roof. He follows the science and politics of climate change and is completely baffled as to how certain politicians continue to deny it is an important issue and why it isn’t at the top of everyone’s political agenda. 

Clear and Present Danger

Windmills, a zero-emission form of energy. (Source: Creative Commons)

Windmills, a zero-emission form of energy. (Source: Creative Commons)

It is one thing to not take any action when you’re not sure of the danger or threat, but to not take action once you’ve become aware of the threat, is either gross stupidity or gross negligence. One of my brothers just had a kid. When he reaches the age of reason, he probably won’t hold his great-grandfather, nor his grandparents responsible for the climate he inherits. They will be excused since they were unaware of the impact of their activities. But I don’t want to explain to my nephew when he’s 18 how we were warned about climate change, had the technology to do something about it, but we ended up just talked about it because less than three percent of the climate scientists were unsure whether or not it was an actionable problem, and Congress claimed to be more worried about the debt he would inherit.

I think we know for a fact that doing something about reducing the human impact on the climate can’t hurt. Might it not help? Ninety-seven percent of the scientific community believe taking action is justified and has the potential to slow or stabilize climate change. And no, Senator Santorum, the Earth does not exist solely for our benefit. Harking back to the parable cited in my first article, heed the warning signs being sent to us. We shouldn’t need another “Great Flood” to inspire us to take action.

To read the rest of the series, click the links below:

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