Earth Day! - April 2020

At some point in one’s life, whether in a zoo or in the wild, you have seen how owls can demonstrate incredible neck flexibility? They can turn their heads a whopping 270 degrees!

Grand Canyon National Park, canyon, Arizona, national park, photo

Fleeting Light

A gorgeous afternoon on the rim of the Grand Canyon National Park watching the clouds roll by.

Why don’t they just move their eyes? The fact is they don’t have eyeballs. Instead their eyes are best described as “eye tubes.” These eye tubes are specialized to enable owls to see in well at night when they hunt for prey.

Dislike mosquitoes? Then pack up and head to Iceland as it has been reported to be the only country without the pesky insects.

Manatees can control their buoyancy by an endless cycle of farting. I’m sure you didn’t know that and probably wished you hadn’t read that!

For a lot of people the smell of bananas is pleasant. However, if you find yourself around Africanized bees and you smell the aroma of banana- RUN- FAST- it means they are about to attack!

There are so many examples of the awesomeness of nature. Whether it’s the majesty of the Grand Canyon, the the beauty of a rainbow, the intricate pattern of a butterfly’s wings, or a manatee farting like a machine gun; our natural world truly amazing.
Yet throughout human civilization we have neglected to protect what is most important to us; maintaining a sustainable society that has clean air, water, and protects against the degradation of all natural resources. Most of damage we humans do to the environment directly stems from over consumption as a result of poor decision making. Could we have walked or biked to the local convenience store, instead of driving, to get that last roll of toilet paper? Or could we only run the dishwasher when it’s full, or better, yet hand wash our dishes? Would turning on a ceiling fan be sufficient, rather than turning on the air conditioner? We are all somewhat guilty of poor decision making when it comes to environmental protection, but if we all implemented small changes, the cumulative impact can make a difference!

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From: Pinterest - Love Canal drums

The Background

Rachel Carson, author of the Silent Spring, may have summarized it best, “…man is a part of nature and his war against nature is inevitably a war against himself.” Those words were written in 1962 and it took the United States another 8 more years before the outcry of the public reached a crescendo. On April 22, 1970 the first large rallies took place in some of our larger cities decrying the lack of government involvement in mandating environmental protection. The brainchild of Senator Gaylord Nelson and inspired by the protests of the 1960s, Earth Day began as a “national teach-in on the environment.” By the early 1960s, many Americans were noticing and becoming acutely aware the effects of pollution. Rachel Carson book, Silent Spring, was a wake up call on the effects of pesticides. In 1969, the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland caught fire, creating an unforgettable scene on how poorly we were managing chemical waste. And for those of us old enough, who can forget the saga of Love Canal that played out on the nightly news? Love Canal for me and many is the epitome of chemical mismanagement and misguided decision making. It was a failed attempt at creating a canal linking the lower and upper Niagara River, thus bypassing Niagara Falls. Although the project was started, the financial panic of 1893 caused financial backers to pull out of project. A mile of the canal was dug, but was abandoned in place only to be eventually used by the Hooker Chemical Company. Hooker was granted permission by Niagara Power and Development Company to use part of the canal to dispose of chemical waste. In 1947, Hooker purchased the Canal and used it exclusively for 10 years, dumping an estimated 20 tons of some of the nastiest waste you can imagine. With the city of Niagara Falls beginning to expand in the early 1950's, it was apparent the city would need the Canal for residential and industrial development; thus, Hooker discontinued dumping and covered this toxic landfill in 1952. Soon after closing the landfill, the Hooker Chemical Company was approached by the city of Niagara Falls to purchase the Love Canal property for the intent of building a school. Yes, you read correctly. What better place for a school than over a toxic waste dump. Of course, one has to put this all in context. It was the 1950s and environmental legislature was virtually non-existent. However, one would believe common sense was used occasionally? Apparently not. Of course, those managers at Hooker knew very well all the nasties they buried in Love Canal. Initially, they were not keen in selling the property to the city; particularly knowing a school could be build. However, Hooker’s in-house counsel saw a golden opportunity to relieve the company of any future liabilities. In negotiations with the City of Niagara Falls, Hooker wanted special provisions be placed in the deed that only allowed a city park be constructed over the Canal. The City of Niagara Falls refused to accept any special provisions. Hooker eventually relented and sold the Love Canal property for $1.00! The land sale included some very firm language relieving Hooker of any future liabilities. Sounds brilliant on their part but not so much as it turned out. As promised the city of Niagara Falls did build a school on the Love Canal property. Even during construction, several drums of toxic materials were uncovered. The school was completed in 1955 and in that same year a large area subsided exposing some of those toxic waste drums. The depressions often filled with water during rain events and, of course, became a favorite place for the kids to play in. Oh my! During the late 1950’s, residential areas also sprung up around Love Canal. Over the years, local residents complained about the suspicious “black fluid” that flowed up out of the ground. In the nearby neighborhood residents also had to content with foul odors and strange substances in their yards. It wasn’t really until 1977 that any government agency addressed the situation. That year Niagara Falls has a very harsh winter that significantly raised the water table. Ground water began seeping into some of the nearby home basements. The State Departments of Health and Environmental Conservation began testing the foul smelling fluids in these basements and detected over 80 chemical compounds; many of which was suspected to be carcinogenic. Eventually, the leachate from the Canal itself was tested and 200 chemical compounds were detected. In the mid 1970s the Niagara Falls Gazette started documenting this unfolding environmental disaster. Reporters went door to door interviewing the residents around the Canal only to discover an alarming number of children with birth defects and cancers. One reporter challenged the mainstream government officials and encouraged local residents to create a protest group. Those protest groups were shown on the nightly news and are still ingrained in memory. I kept wondering how responsible government officials could have let this happened? Yea, very naive I suppose. It really did take an army of local citizens and the media to finally get the government to address this horrid situation. In 1978, President Jimmy Carter declared a federal heath emergency for Niagara Falls. Eventually, the federal government relocated 800 families and reimbursed them for the loss of their homes. However, they had to deal with the health toll it took their families and possibly for generations to come. Remember the Hooker Chemical Company and their “washing their hands” of the situation? Not so much as it turned out. In 1994, a federal judge ruled that Hooker, now Occidental Petroleum, had been negligent, but not reckless in its handling of the waste and sale of the land. They ended up paying a measly $129 million. The Love Canal site was eventually designated a Superfund site and was mitigated at a cost of $400 million.

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From: - young protester at Love Canal

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Love Canal prior to home demolition - Photo by Andy Levin

The story of Love Canal, along with the Times Beach, the Santa Barbara Oil Spill, and the Valley of Drums, are important events in U.S. environmental history. These horrific events spurred the creation of most of our nation’s environmental laws in the 1970s. They also created a situation where common citizens could have a voice and if that voice was loud enough and caught the ear of the politicians, change may happen. You may recall, “Tricky” Dick Nixon, was president during this time. He may have been despised by many, but apparently he understood the need for environmental protections considering this quote. “The Congress, the Administration and the public all share a profound commitment to the rescue of our natural environment, and the preservation of the Earth as a place both habitable by and hospitable to man.”

Circling back to Earth Day, it was our legacy of sad environmental disasters that reaffirmed that people of this country could make a difference if they had a cause they could support. So, every year on April 22, is a day of reaffirming our commitment to protecting our environment. It now is celebrated world-wide and should be. There still is great denial that what goes on half way around the world won’t affect me. Ummm….has anyone heard of COVID-19? I certainly hope now this situation we currently find ourselves in will enlighten some skeptics that we ARE a global community. Margaret Meed, an American cultural anthropologist, may have said it best in describing Earth Day. “Earth Day is the first holy day which transcends all national borders, yet preserves all geographical integrities, spans mountains and oceans and time belts, and yet brings people all over the world into one resonating accord, is devoted to the preservation of the harmony in nature and yet draws upon the triumphs of technology, the measurement of time, and instantaneous communication through space.”

Posted in Environment, History and tagged earth day.