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Are We Doing a Good Job of Protecting the Air, Water, and Land in Our Hometown?

In my youth a demolition derby was an over-the-top spectacle of metal-mashing mayhem, something no red-blooded American kid wanted to miss, so when my own children were old enough I took them out one summer evening to share the experience.

The outdoor arena, in southern Maryland, was crowded with a dozen old cars. The noise from unmuffled engines and crashing fenders was deafening, engine oil and stray parts were flying, and the air was filled with the smell of burning tires and great clouds of blue exhaust. The raucous spectators loved it.

As I was lost in nostalgia, I felt my daughter's little hand tugging at my arm.

"Daddy," she sobbed, "they're polluting our environment."

I had been reminded–like trent lott on civil rights and Hootie Johnson on women's rights–that the paradigm has shifted.

A generation of concern over pollution of the air, water, and land–especially since creation of the US Environmental Protection Agency in 1970–has suffused American culture with new attitudes that now are as taken for granted as they are historically remarkable. The environmental movement, with its dual focus on the health of humans and the health of nature, is leaving a big green mark on politics from Capitol Hill to Richmond and Annapolis, on the growth and shape of the ever-sprawling Washington region, and on most everyone's behavior and had worked its way right into the mind of my little daughter.

Old habits are very much out of style. There was a time when people tossed Coke bottles and the stubs of Lucky Strikes out car windows along roadsides filled with Burma-Shave signs. No Kiwanis Club ever adopted a highway. Homeowners burned their leaves every fall. Drivers filled up with leaded gasoline, and nobody had to worry about whether an emission sticker was past due. People bought DDT to kill the mosquitoes and never thought what it might be doing to the bald eagles. The snail darter and the spotted owl had zero name recognition.

Now you must pay the tire merchant to dispose of your worn-out radials. You must dump your wine bottles into curbside recycling bins. If your old toilet goes bad, you must install a new one with a less-vigorous flush. When the doorbell rings, it may be Greenpeace coming to save the whales.

All this requires a new vocabulary filled with ecosystems, the greenhouse effect, biodiversity, and environmental-impact statements. It's a world where police departments have detectives tracking down polluters, Indian tribes have environmental committees, and the National Auto Wreckers Association has been transformed into the Automotive Recyclers Association.

It requires new ways of thinking. All those big dams out west that lit up Las Vegas and made the desert bloom are now thought to have caused serious ecological damage. The Marlboro Man and the Coppertone Girl, once admired, are to be pitied for their self-destruction.

Environmental etiquette has created new ethical issues. Should you use paper diapers, which clog the landfills, or cloth ones, which take electricity to wash and dry? Should you shun water from the tap in favor of water in bottles, considering all the energy and waste that goes with producing and discarding so much plastic? As you're driving away from the supermarket with a load of heart-friendly chicken in your car with the TREASURE THE CHESAPEAKE license plate, should you feel guilty about all that chicken manure on the Delmarva Peninsula running down to the bay?

Some behavior is now stigmatized. The danger of second-hand smoke has forced the addicted to huddle outside office buildings and has extinguished the smoking lamp in thousands of restaurants and bars. Owners of gas-guzzling SUVs face contempt–someone in Georgetown recently took to smearing their door handles with dog excrement.

Women who wear fur no longer have an easy life, their reputations and clothing endangered by publicity-conscious activists from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals wielding placards and red paint.

Environmental problems are nothing new in Washington, reaching back to the early 1800s, when this was an isolated little town struggling as the new seat of the federal government. Sewage was emptied into the Potomac River, Rock Creek, and the City Canal that ran along what is now Constitution Avenue. People dumped garbage into alleys, pigs scavenged the streets, flies swarmed the horse manure, and mosquitoes bred in stagnant ponds. During the Civil War, the half-buried carcasses of horses and mules could be found near Army corrals. Dysentery, typhoid fever, and cholera took a high toll.

Respect for nature began growing near the end of the century under the banner of conservation. Yellowstone was placed under federal protection as the world's first national park in 1872, and Theodore Roosevelt, the patrician outdoorsman, started the nation's system of federal wildlife refuges in 1903. In California, John Muir founded the Sierra Club. There were campaigns to stop the slaughter of the American bison. Outrage over the killing of birds to provide feathers for women's hats led to creation of the National Audubon Society in 1905.

There was another surge of conservation in the 1930s during the New Deal of Franklin Roosevelt, much of it focused on soil erosion. Bladensburg in Maryland and Dumfries in Virginia had been thriving ports until silt runoff from tobacco fields rendered them useless. The spread of agriculture had made erosion worse, and the New Deal tried to counter it with a Soil Conservation Service in the Agriculture Department, the flood control dams of the Tennessee Valley Authority, and the Civilian Conservation Corps. The reforestation of played-out farmland was another strategy, good examples of which included nearby Shenandoah National Park and Prince William Forest Park.

To day's attention to the environment flows out of forces that have been gathering momentum for a long time. The world has far more people than it did half a century ago–up from 2.6 billion in 1950 to 6.3 billion today. The United States has grown during that same period from 151 million to 290 million. Many more of us are urbanized: The vast majority of Americans live in metropolitan regions like Washington, whose population has surged from 1.5 million in 1950 to more than 4.5 million today. In the United States, the long period of affluence since World War II has led to the use of more cars, more oil, more electricity, more lumber, more water–and produced more pollutants and trash. America remains the land of bright lights, the long shower, and the gas guzzler.

Science and technology operate at a quickened pace, with a Jekyll-and-Hyde personality that helps solve some environmental problems and creates others.

Modern machines are capable of operating on an awesome scale–factory ships pull up tons of the ocean's fish, earthmovers shear away whole mountains to extract coal, mobile saws clear-cut timber from thousands of acres, and the supertankers that transport millions of gallons of crude occasionally suffer accidents that devastate shorelines.

Humans reach into the remotest regions of the earth, leaving heaps of garbage along the route to the summit of Mount Everest, erecting hundreds of communications towers that migrating birds collide with, and strangling birds and marine mammals in fish nets and plastic rings from six-packs. Who can be surprised to learn, as the US Geological Survey did, that streams in the United States now contain trace amounts of caffeine, steroids, insect repellents, and painkillers?

But science and technology also have a positive effect in raising warning signs of environmental risks. Science has confirmed the danger to human health of common substances, from asbestos in insulation to lead in paint and gasoline, and it was science that discovered that the chlorofluorocarbons in everything from hair spray to air conditioners were depleting the protective ozone shield in the stratosphere. The space program gave a boost to the environmental movement by making possible those awe-inspiring pictures of Earth in its blue cosmic splendor that seemed to suggest its fragility.

Television has pushed the environment into everyone's consciousness, mostly with pictures of disaster. Sometimes it's local, when a truck turns over on the Beltway dumping hazardous materials. But bigger disasters often come into our living rooms from farther away: Three Mile Island, the Exxon Valdez, Love Canal, Chernobyl, Bhopal, the oil fires in Kuwait. Some catastrophes make their way to Hollywood, whether the nuclear reactor accident in The China Syndrome or the contaminated water supply in Erin Brockovich.

Environmental consciousness also is being heightened by travel. Outdoor recreation is booming, with millions of people fishing, hunting, biking, canoeing, camping, horseback riding, rock climbing, and bird watching. People are out rafting the Colorado and hiking the Appalachian Trail, and boats are loaded with "ecotourists" watching the whales off Baja or the turtles of Galapagos. Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, and other national parks are big attractions. Anyone can get a taste of nature by paging through the National Geographic, tuning in to watch fleet-footed cheetahs on the Discovery Channel, or gazing at the photos of Ansel Adams.

Even as people hunger for the benefits of technology and urbanization, many do not relish the aftertaste, which contributes to a sense of loss about what has happened to the natural world. Driving out from Washington, people are often surprised at how many of those old pastures and cornfields have been transformed into strip malls, parking lots, and townhouses, how little towns like Leesburg and Frederick have been engulfed by growth. Crabs and oysters from the Chesapeake Bay are no longer so plentiful, and the glaciers are getting smaller every year.

Such trends do not go unnoticed, especially in Washington, where we have a plethora of environmental advocacy groups. These organizations–well funded, politically sophisticated, and determined–ply the halls of Congress and federal agencies alongside the representatives of oil, lumber, mining, chemicals, automobile manufacturing, and other special interests.

Nature, like everybody else, has its own lobby.

The environmental movement has created businesses and professions that barely existed 30 years ago. People make a living cleaning out the ventilation systems of "sick buildings," working in water-testing labs, or disposing of thousands of gallons of cooking grease from restaurants. Versar, a consulting firm formed in 1969 and based in Northern Virginia, offers advice on regulatory compliance, liability avoidance, building decontamination, air and water monitoring, asbestos abatement, storage-tank management, wetlands permitting, and much else.

Environmental science has matured into a big research discipline, focusing on ecosystems, global climate, new technologies for controlling and cleaning up pollution, and the effects of exposure to toxic substances. Environmental health is a recognized medical speciality whose research apparatus includes one of the National Institutes of Health.

Historians are reconsidering old events through an environmental lens: A recent book examines a smog incident near Pittsburgh in the 1940s that killed 20 people and hospitalized 600. Museums mount exhibits with an environmental spin, most famously one at the Smithsonian's American Art Museum in 1991 that enraged conservatives by depicting the history of the American West as one long episode of natural degradation from mining, logging, and grazing.

Washington has several think tanks that concentrate on the environment. One of the most respected is Resources for the Future, whose scholars study everything from the effects of tax incentives on land conservation to the impact of biotechnology on the world's food supply. The Mercatus Center, at the George Mason University School of Law, makes a case for business against federal regulation. A new entry is the H. John Heinz III Center for Science, Economics, and the Environment, named for the late Pennsylvania senator and food-products heir; it is developing an elaborate set of indicators on the health of the nation's ecosystems.

The marketing profession has a sharp eye on the environment as a sales tool. Advertisements portray some Fortune 500 companies as indistinguishable from kindly stewards of wildlife refuges. Weyerhaeuser, the wood-products company, styles itself as the "tree-growing" company, its hardhatted foresters out there planting pine seedlings and checking up on the woodpeckers. British Petroleum, the world's second-largest oil company, claims in its advertising that BP stands for "Beyond Petroleum" and stresses its interest in harnessing renewable energy from the wind and the sun. At Whole Foods, customers enter an organic zone free of pesticide residue and genetically altered substances. Ben & Jerry's wants you to know it is supporting construction of a wind turbine on the Rosebud Sioux reservation in South Dakota, and Starbucks offers free coffee grounds to gardeners to enrich their soil.

Lots of people pay attention. Rising consciousness about the environment ranks along with other great forces in postwar America–civil rights, the women's movement, suburbanization, the computer, immigration–in shaping the way we think and live.

The environment here has undergone big changes. The air we breathe, the water we drink, the trash we produce, the toxic substances we use, the rivers and bay we enjoy, the land we occupy–these are the subject of this special report.


Year Event
1810 First crude DC sewer system
1859 New Washington Aqueduct supplies water to DC
1872 Yellowstone becomes America's first national park
1890 Creation of Rock Creek Park
1892 John Muir foundsSierra Club
1900 Fewer than 40 bison survive to roam the Great Plains
1903 Teddy Roosevelt creates National Wildlife Refuge system
1911 "Smog" coined to describe incident that kills 1,000 in Glasgow, Scotland
1926 Congress creates Shenandoah National Park
1938 Blue Plains wastewater treatment plant opens
1954 Justice William O. Douglas leads march to save the C&O Canal
1957 US Public Health Service declares Potomac unsafe for swimming
1962 Rachel Carson publishes Silent Spring
1963 Nuclear Test Ban Treaty
1965 Lady Bird Johnson promotes highway-beautification law
1970 William Ruckelshaus becomes head of newly created EPA
1970 First Earth Day
1972 Sale of DDT banned
1973 Endangered Species Act
1976 Metro opens pollution-easing subway system
1977 Jimmy Carter creates Department of Energy
1979 Three Mile Island disaster
1979 EPA bans dangerous chemical PCB
1980 Superfund targets toxic wastes
1985 Hole in ozone discoveredover Antarctica
1986 Chernobyl meltdown in Soviet Union
1988 DC has worst summeron record forair pollution
1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill
1993 EPA designates passive smoke a carcinogen
1993 400,000 gallons of fuel spill into Sugarland Runin Fairfax
1993 Boil-water order in DC
1995 Bald-eaglenumberscontinue to climb
2001 Betty Casey donates $50 million forDC trees
2001 Toxic rubble at WTC