When I was a little kid, one of my favorite treats was snow cream.
If you haven’t had the pleasure, snow cream is a bowl of snow mixed with sweetened condensed milk and some sugar. My mom would routinely make snow cream whenever we had a heavy snow.
However, it had to be a heavy snow. I remember we would always wait until the flakes had been falling for a couple of hours before setting our bowls outside.
There was a good reason for this. I was born in 1984, and in the 1980s and early 1990s, the smokestacks at Bassett Furniture and Stanley Furniture were constantly billowing. The initial snowfall would have little black specks in it, carcinogenic soot that had fallen from the sky. That stuff would also strip the clear coat off your car.
While I’m too young to remember it, I’ve heard that you used to be able to tell what color the textile mills were dyeing their fabrics without even setting foot inside the plants. All you had to do was look at the Smith River; the dye ran straight into the river and turned it every color in the rainbow.
Speaking of which, a family friend who had a shop along the Smith River once had to call a plumber because his toilet backed up. He told the plumber that he suspected his septic tank was full. The plumber came back with good news and bad news. The good news was, his septic tank was not full. The bad news was, he didn’t have a septic tank, just a straight pipe that ran into the Smith River, and it was stopped up.
When you look at the Smith River today and see folks fishing for trout, it’s hard to remember a time when it was nearly too toxic to support life. It’s hard to remember the thick clouds of smoke that once poured from our local factories. It’s hard to remember what things were like before the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency picked up steam.
In a real sense, the EPA was born on June 22, 1969, when a train passing over the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland threw a spark into the water and the Cuyahoga caught fire. Catching fire is something we typically don’t associate with large bodies of water, but the Cuyahoga had become a dumping ground for all manner of pollution from Cleveland’s industrial district, and the thick film of oils coating the river generated fifty-foot flames that billowed into the air.
President Richard Nixon signed the executive order that created the EPA in 1970. The agency’s purpose is to create a cleaner, safer world by promoting and enforcing air and water quality and pollution mitigation, among other goals.
The most popular criticism of the EPA is that the standards it enforces, such as those outlined in the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act, are draconian and unrealistic measures that serve only to stifle free market capitalism. In fact — and believe me, it pains me to point this out — that exact criticism is perhaps best exemplified in my beloved “Ghostbusters,” in which EPA Inspector Walter Peck shuts down the Ghostbusters’ containment unit unleashing vengeful spirits on New York City.
I won’t deny that the EPA can make industry expensive. It costs a lot of money to retrofit coal plants to meet new emissions regulations, or to cart away waste instead of just dumping it in the river.
But if you want a good example of what happens when there isn’t an EPA in place, just look to China. Rampant industrial expansion coupled with a lack of concern for the environment has caused horrible issues, such as cities covered in toxic gray clouds of pollution and huge sections of the surrounding ocean devoid of marine life. It’s been estimated that nearly half a million Chinese citizens die prematurely each year due to heart disease and cancer brought on by exposure to pollutants.
But hey, at least we don’t have to worry about that here in the U.S., right?
Yeah, funny thing about that. The Supreme Court just voted 6-3 to limit the EPA’s power to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from power plants in the U.S.
In his 1972 song “Burn On” about the Cuyahoga River, Randy Newman wrote the following:
“Now the Lord can make you tumble/And the Lord can make you turn/And the Lord can make you overflow/But the Lord can’t make you burn.”
Randy was right; only we can set the rivers ablaze, and it looks like a significant portion of our country has voted us back into that exact situation.