Thursday, April 22, 2010

Earth Day Today - 40th Anniversary - Americans Do Care


It is the 40th anniversary of Earth Day when attention is focused on what needs to be done to protect the environment but we should not lose track of what has been done already even before Earth Day became popular. The reason I say that is much of the environmental progress in America has not come from federal government initiatives but the creative genius of local states, cities and people.

I can remember back about 50 years ago when my high school class in Iowa decided to transform an island overgrown with weeds that had been used as a dump site for decades into our own private beach and boating area. We spent two years cleaning, clearing and moving the tons of debris from the woods and water to make it a place we could go to get away from it all. To this day it remains a centerpiece for the city.

Later in Omaha, Nebraska I worked with the Mayor's Office on nationally recognized programs to Keep Nebraska Beautiful, a riverfront development program that transformed former warehouse districts, contaminated railroad yards, former metal plants and stockyards into nationally recognized projects that helped transform Omaha into a model and vibrant city today where it remains the home of Warren Buffett.

Also in Omaha we worked with Father Flannigan's Home for Boys, the world famous Boy's Town, on creating a farm using only natural products for fertilizer, pest control and land restoration. It was successful in demonstrating that crop yields from natural farming could equal the yields of chemicals.

While in Omaha the mayor and I worked on the riverfront development program and during the 1970's oil crises by OPEC we set up a solar energy company that put solar systems in several hundred homes and small businesses across the country. We were able to get the help of major corporations like Goodyear Tire and Rubber, Pittsburgh Plate Glass, Dow Chemical and Phillips Petroleum to make our patented components. It was highly successful until congress eliminated the solar tax credit when oil prices fell.

While working for the Executive Office of the President and Congress in Washington I helped set up first the Federal Energy Agency, later upgraded to the Department of Energy, and worked on a number of legislative bills to manage energy, promote conservation and reduce oil dependence.

When I worked for Governor Thomas Kean of New Jersey in the 1980's we launched a series of nationally recognized environmental initiatives including the first statewide mandatory recycling program, whose stunning success eliminated the need for 19 massive incinerators in the state to process solid waste.

Working with New York we were able to eliminate offshore ocean dumping and eventually to permanently close down the Fresh kills landfill on Stanton Island, formerly the largest landfill in the world and a major source of beach and water pollution along the New Jersey oceanfront.

We adopted the first state energy master plan, the first in the country to block future nuclear plants until all existing plants had decontamination programs for shutting down old plants and restoring the land and until there was a nuclear waste disposal plan. America is still debating nuclear waste disposal.

The first statewide land use and preservation plan was adopted in New Jersey limiting growth in areas and initiating an aggressive plan to protect up to 20% of all New Jersey land from future development. Since New Jersey is the most densely populated state in America this was a massive and controversial undertaking. At the same time we implemented one of the first farmland preservation programs that bought future development rights to protect thousands of acres of farm land in the Garden State.

The Governor also launched an ambitious program to acquire thousands of acres for parks and recreation including 18,000 acres for the Sterling Forest bordering New York, reclaiming Hudson River waterfront for Freedom and Liberty Parks, reclaiming Delaware River waterfront for parks, and many other initiatives.

We were also one of the first states to sue oil companies and won millions of dollars in court settlements for the state. A company in New Jersey owned the Three Mile Island nuclear plant and we were involved in the clean up process from the 1979 accident, the biggest nuclear disaster in America. We were also one of the first states to implement the new EPA Super Fund program cleaning up toxic sites.

In the mid 1990's, after the 1986 tragedy of the Chernobyl nuclear explosion in the Ukraine (then the Soviet Union), I got to meet the children of Chernobyl in Scotland in one of the most humane programs I have ever witnessed. The kids contaminated with radiation in the disaster, and thousands were contaminated, were still living in the danger zone years later with high rates of cancer and often a short life ahead. It has been suggested that the Chernobyl disaster released as much as 400 times the radioactive contamination of the Atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Countries in Europe that were victims of contamination themselves set up programs to bring the Chernobyl children for vacations in Scotland, the UK, Ireland, Germany and other nations. If the kids spent a couple of weeks a year in these countries it actually extended their life expectancy by a year or more. I met a group in Scotland and was amazed at the courage and spirit of the children and the act of compassion by the Scots and others.

Now I find myself in Maryland on the Potomac River not far from the Chesapeake Bay where pollution remains a problem, especially the contamination of the rivers and bay. It has cost the area much of the fishing, crabbing and oyster industries of the watermen while contaminating the waterfront from human and farming waste like fertilizers and pesticides. After converting my home to a green model and putting a nitrogen reduction septic system in I found yet another example of environmental concern.

One day I was called by neighbors because a Bald Eagle was injured. We have about nine Bald Eagles living in our village. When the Eagle was blown off a dock into the Potomac it did not have the strength to swim so into the river I went and grabbed the eagle when water was just about to my neck. After getting it to shore and having it taken to a Bald Eagle rescue center in Delaware I learned it was sick from eating contaminated fish from the river, lead poisoning. It was healed and I got to release it back into the wilds.

My point of all this is in most of the activities I outlined over the years we were not forced to do the things that were undertaken. It was not orders from the federal government that led to the creation of programs to meet our needs but the initiative of local citizens working with schools and professionals because of their personal concern for a clean environment. Never underestimate the value of people discovering and solving some of our major problems because it is the right thing to do. That is the secret strength of Americans and our hope for the future.


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