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Earth Day's Profound Impact on Connecticut's Environment

The Nutmeg State has been spearheading environmental initiatives since 1970, and the positive effects on the landscape are obvious.

When New London High School seniors Betty Flanagan and Debbie Shea wandered out onto the Washington Mall on April 22, 1970, during their April vacation break, little did they realize that they were part of the single largest nationwide demonstration for a cause in the history of the United States.

Flanagan and Shea were two of more than 20 million Americans who demonstrated that day in various parts of the United States on behalf of the environment. In fact, in October 1993, the American Heritage Magazine stated, "On April 22, 1970, Earth Day was held ... one of the most remarkable happenings in the history of democracy."

There can be no question that the driving force behind Earth Day was Sen. Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin. Its roots trace back to 1962, when Sen. Nelson proposed the idea to both Attorney General Robert Kennedy and his brother, President John F. Kennedy. Both were receptive. In fact, President Kennedy began his five-state, 11-day "conservation tour" in September 1963 — just two months before his assassination. So in a very real sense, 2012 is the 50th anniversary of the idea of Earth Day, though the first organized demonstrations occurred in 1970.

Concerning the remarkable popularity of Earth Day in 1970, Sen. Nelson had this to say: "Earth Day worked because of the spontaneous response at the grass-roots level. We had neither the time nor resources to organize 20 million demonstrators and the thousands of schools and local communities that participated. That was the remarkable thing about Earth Day. It organized itself."

Those of you old enough to remember the 1960s and ‘70s may remember the river that caught fire. It was the Cuyahoga River in northeastern Ohio — an area that actually belonged to Connecticut from 1662-1800 and was known as the "Connecticut Western Reserve." The Cuyahoga River caught fire at least 13 times from 1868-1969. It was a slow-moving, winding, brown river that was a dumping ground for sewage and chemical waste and was completely devoid of fish life.

The most remembered fire on the Cuyahoga occurred on June 22, 1969, exactly two months to the day after the first Earth Day occurred. That fire came at a time of heightened environmental awareness and wound up on the cover of Time Magazine. The Time article described the Cuyahoga as the river that did not flow but "oozed." People don’t drown in the Cuyahoga, said Time, "they decay."

The famous Cuyahoga River fire entered popular culture of the 1970s as well. Singer Randy Newmann wrote a popular song called "Burn On," based on the river fire; R.E.M.’s 1986 song "Cuyahoga" and Adam Again’s 1992 song "River On Fire" were also popular tunes based on the Cuyahoga fire of 1969. Following the Gulf Oil Spill of 2010, Nobel laureate economist Paul Klugman called the Cuyahoga fire the birth of "environmentalism."

Connecticut was onboard with the concept of Earth Day very early on; in fact, Gov. John Dempsey ordered the formation of a task force to study air and water pollution in Connecticut in 1969. The result was a report issued in 1970 that became a call to action for the people of Connecticut. Spurred on by the enormous attention brought by the first Earth Day in 1970, the Connecticut legislature enacted laws to clean up the state’s environment. The state created the Department of Environmental Protection in 1970, which became a paradigm for other states to follow.

In fact, a 2010 DEP newsletter had this to say about the pre-1970 environment in Connecticut: "It’s difficult to imagine not being able to fish because of sewage and toxic waste dumped into the rivers, or getting soot in your eyes from smokestacks or open burning— but at the time of the first Earth Day in 1970, these were everyday occurrences."

Following are 10 of the legislative highlights of the past 42 years since the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970. Many of these pieces of environmental legislation have caused a complete change in the way that people in Connecticut treat their environment. Though there may be much more work to complete, it is clear that the "green revolution" ushered in by the events in 1970 have had a positive effect on Connecticut’s environment.

1971 — air quality monitoring begun

1972 — regulation of open burning started

1973 — regulation of sulfur and fuels started

1975 — pesticide control enacted

1978 — bottle bill adopted

1983 — hazardous-waste regulations adopted

1983 — vehicle emissions testing begun

1985 — regulation of underground storage tanks begun

2002 — limits set on idling motor vehicles

2007 — electronics recycling law passed

Little did Betty Flanagan and Debbie Shea of New London High School realize when they attended the first Earth Day demonstrations in April 1970 that they were part of the largest single demonstration for a cause in the history of the United States. Talk about a movement that has had a lasting impact! This "bottom-up," grass-roots movement has grown to an annual commemoration now involving more than a billion people in 171 countries.

Notes, Sources and Links

1. DEEP website

2. Wikipedia page on the Cuyahoga River

3. DEP newsletter, Spring 2010

4. Southern hemisphere countries celebrate Earth Day in our autumn — their spring.

Marc J April 26, 2012 at 10:35 AM
"The Nutmeg State has been spearheading environmental initiatives since 1970, and the positive effects on the landscape are obvious." Is that why Southington and it's fellow towns convinced the DEEP to throw out all the science they know, and we paid for them to know, about phosphorus damage to the Quinnipiac River and how to recover from it? They go along with a hoot from the oil country with no qualifications other than the desire to save money for other lunacies in town?? Here's the next idea Governor Malloy: When you're looking to save money in the State budget, you might as well gut the DEEP. If they are not going to stand their well-respected ground for nature and the environment, we might as well save money for the State taxpayers and ease the budget burden.
cate April 26, 2012 at 11:27 AM
The general point of the article is well taken. If you had firsthand experience of the rivers and air in CT as I did in the 1960s before the DEP was established you'd understand the truth of the huge transformation that has occurred--it's undeniable. That is not to say, however, that the DEP (now the DEEP) has been 100% right on everything--what agency or even what person is? Sounds as if they had the phosphorous issue in the Q River wrong, and they were stangely silent about the Haddam land swap issue, but it is undeniable to anyone who has lived for 40-50 yrs or more in this state that the positive change in the rivers and air is obvious. The overreactive comment above skews the general truth of this article. And just what does this sentence mean: "They go along with a hoot from the oil country with no qualifications other than the desire to save money for other lunacies in town??" Peculiar.
Corey Fyke (Editor) April 26, 2012 at 02:13 PM
As someone who is a mere lad of 40, it's hard for me to imagine the horrible state of the environment in the late '60s. It's a time that people of my generation think of (generally) as idyllic and unspoiled. Apparently, though, it was less-than-idyllic and fairly spoiled, at least environmentally. Car companies for decades dumped toxic chemicals in rural areas, manufacturing plants spewed soot and worse into the air and spilled solvents into rivers. There was virtually no recycling going on. Thank god for those 20 million marchers and their movement's legacy.
Darrell Lucas April 26, 2012 at 08:59 PM
I remember as a child in Montana going in Earth day Parades and having recycled goods stuck all over me. Cans attached to my bike helmet. Newspapers and such. I think I have a photo somewhere.
Jim Corcoran April 27, 2012 at 10:43 AM
"As environmental science has advanced, it has become apparent that the human appetite for animal flesh is a driving force behind virtually every major category of environmental damage now threatening the human future: deforestation, erosion, fresh water scarcity, air and water pollution, climate change, biodiversity loss, social injustice, the destabilization of communities, and the spread of disease." Worldwatch Institute, "Is Meat Sustainable?" "The livestock sector emerges as one of the top contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global. The findings of this report suggest that it should be a major policy focus when dealing with problems of land degradation, climate change and air pollution, water shortage and water pollution, and loss of biodiversity. Livestock’s contribution to environmental problems is on a massive scale and its potential contribution to their solution is equally large. The impact is so significant that it needs to be addressed with urgency." UN Food and Agricultural Organization's report "Livestock's Long Shadow" “If every American skipped one meal of chicken per week and substituted vegetables and grains... the carbon dioxide savings would be the same as taking more than half a million cars off of U.S. roads.” Environmental Defense Fund Why would someone choose to be vegan? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fKr4HZ7ukSE and http://www.veganvideo.org

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