4 Disasters that Shaped US Environmental Policy

Posted on 5/7/2019 by Anthony Cardno, CHMM

2019 represents anniversary dates for four major environmental disasters that greatly influenced environmental policy in the United States. These four disasters convinced US Congress to enact stricter environmental laws in our country and, at least in part, led to:
  • The founding of the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970,
  • The writing of the Federal Water Pollution Control Act (FWPCA) and Oil Pollution Act (OPA),
  • The process of identifying Superfund sites under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA), and
  • Chemical emergency preparedness requirements under the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA).
These four major environmental disasters shaped history and, as you will see, had a tremendous effect on the environmental regulations we know today.

50 Years Ago: Cuyahoga River Fire (Ohio)

Portions of the Cuyahoga River in Ohio had caught on fire several times since 1868. But 50 years ago, a river fire caught national attention. The June 22, 1969 fire wasn’t even the worst of them (that accolade belongs to the 1959 fire that caused over $1 million in damages), but it turned out to be the final straw, so to speak.

It spawned a cover-feature on TIME magazine, and eventually led to President Nixon creating the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970 and Congress writing the Federal Water Pollution Control Act (FWPCA) in 1972, a law we now know as the Clean Water Act (CWA).

The signing of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement and the creation of the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency are also credited to the aftermath of Cuyahoga River fires.

The Cuyahoga River Fire influenced pop culture, too: musicians Randy Newman, R.E.M., and Adam Again all wrote and produced songs about this fire.

Ohio EPA released a video this year that documents the Cuyahoga's comeback: 

40 Years Ago: Valley of the Drums (Kentucky)

Forty years ago, in 1979, the EPA investigated the “Valley of the Drums” in Kentucky and discovered high levels of heavy metal, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and 140 other chemical substances in the soil thanks to two decades of improper waste disposal. A year earlier, Love Canal in Niagara Falls, NY had been declared a “national emergency” by President Carter.

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While the human health toll of Love Canal (increased incidence of cancer and birth defects) was upsetting, it was a largely suburban, and thus innocuous looking, site. The Valley of the Drums was a more visually arresting image of environmental damage due to poor disposal practices.

Together, these two locations were the final instigation Congress needed to write and pass CERCLA in 1980, leading to the identification and clean-up of hundreds of “Superfund sites” and the creation of a list of hazardous substances for which releases must be reported to the National Response Center (NRC).

35 Years Ago: Bhopal Disaster (Bhopal, India)

On December 2-3, 1984 (35 years ago), a huge release of methyl isocyanate (MIC) gas from a Union Carbide plant caused thousands of deaths and many more partial or permanently disabling injuries. The event made international news.

Several months later, a similar, but not fatal, release occurred in Institute, West Virginia.

These events led Congress to write and pass the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA), which requires companies that have chemicals onsite to help local and state emergency services prepare for releases of those chemicals that might impact the local population and environment.

30 Years Ago: Exxon Valdez (Prince William Sound, Alaska)

It’s hard to believe that it’s been 30 years since one of the landmark environmental disasters of our lifetimes. In 1989, the Valdez oil tanker struck Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound, ultimately spilled 10.8 million gallons of crude oil into the water and onto adjoining shorelines.

Congress almost immediately passed the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, which prohibits entry to Prince William Sound to any vessel that had previously caused an oil spill of more than 1 million gallons and which also set a phase-in for double-hull designs for oil tankers.

Until the Deepwater Horizon explosion in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, the Exxon Valdez was the worst oil spill in US waters in history.

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Tags: CERCLA, Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, EPA, EPCRA, hazardous waste management

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