In this month's issue, we are continuing on our exploration of domestic environmental policy, but this time we will be focusing on the years 1975-1979 and two major environmental disasters that shaped what the public was focused on. Most of the major policies that were passed during this time were amendments to acts we have already covered in previous issues (check them out here), but there are a few gems you probably have never heard of! Lets jump into it:
1975- Cutting Aid to Polluters
Following the success of the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act, the EPA passed regulations that require “... federal agencies withhold contracts, grants or loans to industrial and manufacturing plants…” that violate the standards set in place by the Clean Air Act and the Federal Water Pollution Control Act (OA US EPA, 1975 Press Release). Additionally, any violating facilities or organizations were placed on a list by the EPA and in collaboration with the states. The EPA stated they planned to, “…use the list of violating facilities primarily as a tool to bring about voluntary compliance with clean air and water standards from any organization desiring to receive Federal funds” (OA US EPA, 1975 Press Release).
1976- The Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA)
The Toxic Substances Control Act is meant to protect the public from risk or injury due to the production, importation and use of toxic chemicals. Specifically, TSCA gives the EPA the power to, “require reporting, record-keeping and testing requirements, and restrictions relating to chemical substances and/or mixtures” (OP US EPA). Some of the major chemicals that are regulated under the TSCA are polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), asbestos, radon and lead-based paint.
Besides the policies that were enacted or updated during this period, 1975-1979 saw two massive environmental disasters. The Love Canal disaster of 1978 sparked national outrage when residents of Love Canal, NY discovered that the town was “...contaminated by buried leaking chemical containers…” (OA US EPA). The story of Love Canal began in the early 1940s, when the Hooker Chemical Company, a producer of chlor alkali products, began dumping their chemical waste in Love Canal. By 1952, the Hooker Company had dumped 22,000 tons of chemical waste into the canal (OEC - Timeline of Events at Love Canal). In 1953 the Hooker company sold the Love Canal property to the Board of Education of Niagara Falls for approximately one dollar. They did so under the condition that they would not be responsible for “... any future damages due to the presence of buried chemicals”(OEC - Timeline of Events at Love Canal). By 1955, the school board had built and opened the 99th Street Elementary School and sold the remaining land to citizens of Love Canal to build new residences. It wasn’t until the late 1970s that the presence of the buried chemicals was brought to the attention of the public, with increased precipitation in the year prior causing the already rusted chemical drums to burst, causing decades old chemical waste to reach the surface. President Carter declared the situation a state of emergency and eventually relocated 700 families, after years of protest and concern over the long term impacts on public health. Love Canal had a significant impact on subsequent federal policies as well with an emphasis on man made toxins. In 1978 alone the EPA set new standards for lead air pollution and phasing out Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs).
The national focus on the harmful effect of toxins and chemicals was only amplified by the meltdown of the Three Mile Island nuclear plant near Harrisburg, PA. In 1979, “Cooling water, contaminated with radiation, drained from the open valve into adjoining buildings, and the core began to dangerously overheat” (Three Mile Island Disaster - HISTORY). Due to human error during the shutdown process, the core was 1,000 degrees from a complete meltdown, which would have resulted in deadly radiation, though by the end of the crisis, no one besides plant workers were thought to have been exposed (Three Mile Island Disaster - HISTORY). This incident created fear surrounding the safety of nuclear power, and “its aftermath brought about sweeping changes involving emergency response planning, reactor operator training, human factors engineering, radiation protection, and many other areas of nuclear power plant operations” (“Backgrounder on the Three Mile Island Accident”). These incidents set the stage for the environmental policies that we will cover in our next issue, which will be focused on the years 1980-1984.
US EPA, OA. 1975 Press Release: Federal Government Will Not Award Contracts, Grants, or Loans to Water and Air Polluters. https://archive.epa.gov/epa/aboutepa/1975-press-release-federal-government-will-not-award-contracts-grants-or-loans-water-and.html. Accessed 26 Mar. 2022.