Saturday, April 16, 2011

Remembering Donora, Love Canal

In October of 1948 in Donora and in Webster, Pennsylvania a temperature inversion produced an air pollution disaster. Layers of warm air high above the Monongahela river valley managed to trap masses of cool air full of smoke from burning coal in a steel mill and a zinc smelter. Some twenty people actually died, and around seven thousand residents of the area became ill. Those who’ve worked professionally in pollution control will know that it was Donora that triggered the earliest serious air pollution control efforts in this country.

It was also in October 1948 that Paul Richard Le Page, currently governor of Maine, saw the light of day. Today my paper tells me that Le Page “announced a 63-point plan to cut environmental regulations.” One of these was suspending a law to monitor toxic chemicals in children’s products (NYT, this date, p. 1).

Governor Le Page, to be sure, was not yet five when, in April of 1953, Hooker Chemical sold a piece of land to the Niagara Falls School District to build a new school. There was a little wrinkle here. Hooker had used that land to bury toxic wastes. Indeed, Hooker even drilled some holes and demonstrated to the school board that toxic wastes were, really, under ground. The school board, however, insisted on buying the land. Hooker agreed but inserted a paragraph in the purchase agreement in an attempt to free itself of future liabilities. That land later became very famous as Love Canal—but the young Le Page was still too young to take in all of the hoopla that arose from it. And as for governors and such, we don’t insist that they must pass examinations to prove their competence. Mere popularity is sufficient to inaugurate them into office with all due ceremony.

My point here, simply, is that environmental regulations came about for a reason. And that reason is not that people in government, with too little to do, dream up ways of obstructing the holy march of the Free Market to the divine radiance of a future millennium. No. The reason for environmental regulations was tawdry ordinary things like people suffocating, children dying, and mothers giving birth to babies with birth defects.

But what can you do? Our educational system is evidently failing—and has been for a while. I well remember, I can never forget, a speech I once gave in a small town in Kansas or Arkansas or someplace like that, in the 1970s. On environmental subjects. And a distinguished-looking grey-haired elderly lawyer in attendance challenged me when I said that burning things does not destroy them—that the same matter, stuff, material still existed after burning as had existed before. He wouldn’t buy that—despite my saying that if we surrounded a fire with a great big balloon and then, later, chemically measured the amount of carbon present there in gaseous form we would still have the same amount of carbon inside the bubble as we had had before the fire had been started. This he wouldn’t buy.

Do we have to kill people every other generation or so before we’re permitted to regulate emissions, dumping, and even food purity? Evidently so.

Another point of mine is that government is there for a reason too. It’s not some sort of toxic substance we must get rid of or make as small as possible. But it’s a free country, isn’t it? And qualifications for voting are a non-starter.

1 comment:

  1. Good points. I read that same NYT article on Sunday and was struck by the short sightedness of LaPage style "leadership."