Commentary: Earth Day at 50: Assessing environmentalism’s hits and misses

By Dr. Samuel B. Hoff

     On the original Earth Day in 1970, Americans were tasked with taking personal responsibility for the stewardship of our environment.  The federal government — albeit unevenly — had taken some actions to stem pollution of air, water, and land areas, but these would be futile without recognition, support, and assistance from the populace. 

As we commemorate the 50th Earth Day today, it is appropriate to assess progress and pitfalls in protecting the natural world around us.

The fight to limit air pollution was well on its way as the 1970s dawned.  Federal legislation in the 1950s included the National Air Pollution Act of 1955, while the 1960s witnessed passage of the 1963 Clean Air Act, 1965 Motor Vehicle Air Pollution Control Act, and 1965 National Emissions Standards Act.  The 1970 extension of the Clean Air act established quality and performance standards in this area. Starting in 1987, a series of international agreements would set targets for reducing emissions of toxic substances worldwide.  Yet, these initiatives seemed to be stymied by events such as the nuclear accident at Three Mile Island plant in Pennsylvania, which led to a 30-year hiatus in the construction of nuclear facilities in America and concomitant increase of fossil fuel-based energy utilization.

Dr. Samuel B. Hoff

Within Delaware, DNREC created a Division of Air Quality in order to establish clean air standards within the state.  Notable among accomplishments in this milieu have been restrictions on open burning and consistent monitoring of air quality.  However, the impact of these rules has been limited.  For example, as recently as 2016, all three Delaware counties earned a F grade for ozone pollution.  In that same year, a study by New York University estimated that as many as 41 residents of the state die each year from air pollution.  While state officials have repeatedly claimed that as much as 90 percent of Delaware’s air pollution emanates from other states, that doesn’t explain the 26 violations recently found at the Delaware City Refinery.

Contemporary national efforts to confront water pollution began as early 1948 with the Federal Water Pollution Act.  In the eight years from 1972-1980, four major laws were enacted in this area, including the 1972 Clean Water Act, the 1972 Marine Protection Act, the 1974 Safe Drinking Water Act, and the 1980 Fish and Wildlife Conservation Act.  Conversely, excessive ocean dumping has led to projection that if current trends continue, there will be more plastic than fish residing there within thirty years.  Though accidental, devastatingly destructive oil spills in 1989 and 2010 have highlighted vulnerabilities in our water systems.

Delaware has certainly enjoyed some success in mitigating water pollution.  It joined other states in setting PCB standards in 2013.  Further, Dover’s Silver Lake experienced vast improvement in water quality through an activated carbon process project.  Other positive developments include the state’s artificial reef program and invasive species mitigation. Conversely, oxygen levels in bodies such as the Delaware River are dangerously low, and the river had the ignoble distinction of being named the 5th most polluted river in the nation not long ago.  Additionally, recent studies have concluded that only 15 percent of Delaware’s streams and rivers are safe for swimming, whereas just six percent of these bodies are safe for fishing.   Finally, DNREC continues to avoid transparency in releasing information pertaining to wastewater violations, which has prompted judicial intervention during the current year.

National actions to reduce land-based pollution have likewise produced results.  Starting with the 1965 Solid Waste Disposal Act, the 

federal government followed with laws such as the 1975 Hazardous Material Transportation Act, creation of the Superfund program in 1980 to clean up toxic waste sites, 1980 Alaska Lands Conservation Act, 1982 Nuclear Waste Policy Act, and 1990 Oil Pollution Act.

Among the First State’s policies to reduce land pollution are land use rules, beach preservation, recycling services, composting program, and regulations regarding hazardous and infectious waste.  However, Delaware’s reliance on farming has created pockets of serious soil erosion, and reliance on agricultural chemicals has led to incidents of groundwater poisoning.  Most vividly, Delaware’s dirty habit of  depositing toxic materials at landfills resulted in the identification of 20 sites on the Superfund list, of which less than half have been cleaned according to Federal standards. 

Pollution is largely of human origin and is intentional.  While this fact alternately produces denial and shame, it likewise should foster both hope and determination: the world’s environmental future is in our hands, just as it was on that April day a half-century ago.  

Dr. Samuel B. Hoff is George Washington Distinguished Professor for the Delaware State Society of the Cincinnati and Professor Emeritus of 

History and Political Science at Delaware State University.  In 1980, he worked for Clean Water Action Project, a Washington, DC-based environmental advocacy organization.