Commentary: In The Beginning

Environmental Commentary by Tom Horton

Imagine a U.S. senator, so engaged in meetings and hearings to craft environmental legislation that he spends not a single day raising money for re-election until almost the end of his six-year term.

Now imagine that his bill, which will fundamentally alter the relationship between business and environment, passes the Senate unanimously; passes the House with only 14 dissenting votes.

Another planet? Just America in 1972, the year Sen. Ed Muskie of Maine gained passage of the first modern Clean Water Act. Two years earlier, the environment subcommittee Muskie chaired had produced a tough and sweeping Clean Air Act.

“Legislators had time then to think; and the debate was never partisan,” said Leon Billings who, as staff director of the environment subcommittee, wrote much of the air and water legislation that still underpins our Chesapeake cleanup.

Billings spoke recently to my students at Salisbury University. He said the air and water acts took “the radical position that there was no right to pollute the public’s air and water. Federal environmental laws had all been discretionary. We changed an awful lot of ’mays‘ to ’shalls.’”

Up to then, industries could discharge into a river until it reached its assimilative capacity—translation: pretty dead. Randy Newman’s 1969 song, “Burn On Big River,” captured the resulting mess, recounting Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River bursting into flames.

As governor of Maine, Muskie had seen desperately needed jobs fall through when a new mill he’d attracted to build on the Saco River pulled out because the water was too polluted.

As U.S. Senator, he spent nearly a decade bringing stakeholders and states across the nation on board for stronger pollution legislation. The Clean Water Act required 44 Senate committee meetings and at least that many in the House.

“These days it would be rare for a senator to attend more than one committee hearing on a bill,” Billings said. Fund-raising requires so much of legislators’ time now.

The 1972 Clean Water Act took aim most directly at sewage, with a multibillion dollar program to help states upgrade wastewater plants. That remains the most successful aspect of the Chesapeake Bay cleanup, with pollution from sewage shrinking even as population has nearly doubled.

Equally impressive is the broad range of pollution the 41-year-old legislation covered—stormwater pollution, agricultural runoff, the overflows of sewers combined with storm drains—even the possibility that too much freshwater taken from rivers could make estuaries like the Chesapeake too salty.

The permit program set up for industries to get ever cleaner as technology advanced spoke of the “elimination” of polluted discharges. That goal of “zero discharge” remains, seldom voiced these days.

“Congress wanted every inch of the U.S. covered,” Billings said.

For all of its scope, it seemed that the Clean Water Act benefitted from a focus on human health and welfare: “Back then ‘environment’ was a made-up word…we were just concerned about pollution,” he said.

Politically, the times that birthed such legislation were ripe for change—the civil rights movement, the first Earth Day, Vietnam. “There were so many war protestors camped in the halls of Congress, a lot of legislators didn’t mind staying in committee hearings just to avoid getting nailed,” Billings recalled.

He said Muskie and his colleagues understood “they were in a moment (when) they could change the relationship between government and American capitalism; and that moment would not last.”

These days the momentum for environmental improvement seems hard to imagine; does Billings find any optimism a student asked?

He spoke about the “dark days” of his childhood, growing up in a family that ran a progressive newspaper in Billings, Mo. It was the era of McCarthyism, of government witch hunts for “commies.” Billings was beaten in school, kicked out of Boy Scouts, his family ostracized.

“And yet, 20 years later I was sitting in the U.S. Congress, crafting some of the most important legislation of my era,” he said.

And the far-reaching Clean Water Act remains largely un-eroded, mostly strengthened by modifications through the years, he said. Indeed, a federal court this fall upheld it against an American Farm Bureau challenge that the EPA had overreached its authority in the Chesapeake cleanup.

Hope lies, Billings said, in Section 208, never funded as Congress intended in 1972. It speaks to the bay’s pressing problems of runoff from farms and development: “It has become clearly established that the waters of the nation cannot be restored… unless the very complex and difficult problem of nonpoint sources is addressed.”

“The authority to move forward is there. Most Americans think air and water are ‘settled issues,’” Billings told the students. “They are not. We have left the hardest work for you.”

Tom Horton has written several books about the Chesapeake Bay. Distributed by Bay Journal News Service.

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