America’s Thanksgiving

November 27, 2013

This week we give thanks to those who have worked to ensure a clean and beautiful environment in America. We are fortunate that our air and water is sanitary and safe. It is healthy for us and it has profound economic consequences for the nation.

China recently moved to address its enormous and complex environment problem. From e360 at Yale:

This summer, the [Chinese] Ministry of Environmental Protection released results of air quality studies from 74 cities showing that these urban areas had harmful levels of pollution. Several weeks ago the city of Harbin, population 11 million, was literally shut down as dense pollution reduced visibility to a few meters. Transportation halted, schools closed, and residents of China’s mega-cities were left to wonder whether more of these “airpocalypses” would define China in the 21st century.

How will China mitigate these problems? From e360 again:

China’s environmental problems will certainly not disappear soon. Although the country has spent more money than any nation on land and water restoration, only about 11 percent of China’s forests have healthy ecological functioning. The Chinese Academy of Sciences reports that 43 percent of surface water is too polluted to use, and 57 percent of urban groundwater — the primary source of drinking water for hundreds of millions of people — is also polluted, according to a 2013 Ministry of Environmental Protection study. Soil pollution is so extensive that the government considers data about it to be a state secret.

In contrast, the U.S. Clean Water Act had its 40th anniversary last year. Professors at Carnegie Mellon University explain:

The overall objective of the Clean Water Act is ‘to restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the Nation’s waters.’ This was a very ambitious goal in 1972, matched by equally ambitious specific objectives, which included elimination of discharges of pollutants into navigable waters by 1985, achievement of ‘fishable and swimmable’ waters by 1983, and construction of municipal wastewater treatment facilities across the nation. While the timelines for the water quality objectives were too ambitious, a system of federal-state-local cooperation was initiated which has yielded substantial progress in improving water quality.

America is not finished making itself sustainable, but we have made enormous progress. From Carnegie Mellon again:

Problems remain today with respect to the waters of our region and of the nation, but the challenges in 1972 were more basic and more visible. For example, many communities had rudimentary or even no wastewater treatment, there were limited or no regulations on many industrial discharges, and many lakes such as Lake Erie were suffering from severe oxygen depletion due to inputs of organic matter and algal-bloom-inducing nutrient chemicals. Amounts of floating oil and debris on surface waters were substantial enough that some literally caught fire, as occurred in June 1969 on the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland. A photograph of the Cuyahoga on fire became a symbol of the era.

America has substantial economic challenges, but I am thankful that we are left with cities that have breathable air and water that is pure enough to drink. For this I am truly thankful.

One comment

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Obviously you are not a foaming-at-the-mouth member of the Tea Party or Libertarian. They believe that government is always bad.

Your example of the flaming Cuyahoga River is a good example of the situation with our water supply when corporations were unrestricted.

For air, you could have mentioned what happened in Donora, a mill town near Pittsburgh, in 1948. U.S. Steel’s Donora Zinc Works and its American Steel & Wire plant were always dumping toxic clouds into the air, but in 1948 an air inversion allowed those clouds to congregate and start killing people. The Clean Air Act eventually followed, but not until 1970.

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