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Happy Earth Day

by Editorial Board
The Columbian, April 22, 2010

Today marks the 40th Earth Day, the annual event meant to raise awareness of our fragile ecosystem and the need to treat it with greater care. Much has changed since 1970, when Camas native Denis Hayes helped organize the first Earth Day, replete with teach-ins and marches. There were plenty of reasons for outreach and outrage, and some 20 million people participated.

In those days, before catalytic converters became standard on most autos, Vancouver-Portland faced a huge problem with air pollution. In the summer of 1974, there were 37 days of unhealthy smog levels in the metro area, according to the Southwest Washington Regional Transportation Council. After passage of the first Clean Air Act, Portland was one of a few U.S. cities forced to limit downtown parking to fight smog. Today, Vancouver-Portland's air meets all federal air quality health standards, and monitoring is in place to ensure our continued health.

Water pollution was a major issue back then. DDT, an efficient pesticide that was later shown to affect reproduction of birds, was still in use, as were PCBs, polychlorinated biophenyls used in electrical and industrial applications that were later shown to cause cancer. Both easily found their way into the Columbia River and other surface water. Today, our river is much cleaner, though the toxic legacy of both substances remain. Bird populations have rebounded, and the bald eagle is once again a common sight in Southwest Washington.

In 1970, consumers didn't understand the problems created by trash. In Western Washington, poorly designed landfills filled rapidly with household garbage, hazardous waste and a large volume of materials -- aluminum, glass, paper -- that had value as recyclables. Rainwater fell on these landfills, creating a toxic brew that leached into groundwater. Today, landfills are much better designed, and located in drier climates east of the mountains where groundwater contamination is less of a threat. In Clark County, almost 40 percent of our post-consumer waste is recycled at the curb. There are even places to recycle electronic goods such as computers, a product still many years away from the mass market in 1970.

But the struggle to reduce our toll on the Earth continues today.

Forty years after the first Earth Day, we still haven't figured out a way to handle our nuclear waste. After many years of study, the best science suggests a permanent repository be built at Yucca Mountain, in the Nevada desert. The facility was supposed to open in 1998, but the morass of politics, bureaucracy and the legal process means that construction hasn't even started. Meanwhile dangerous radioactive waste is "temporarily" stored in places like Hanford, along the Columbia River upstream of Vancouver, and the former Trojan nuclear power plant across the river from Kalama.

Water pollution remains a major challenge for us. DDT and PCBs linger in our rivers and streams, and there are still problems with other pollutants getting into the water from agriculture, septic fields, roads and even suburban lawns. Along too many stream banks, shade trees have been cut and natural channels damaged or diverted, removing fish habitat.

Some of the water pollution is big enough to see. Last week the body of a 37-foot gray whale washed ashore in West Seattle. A necropsy found more than 50 gallons of man-made debris in its stomach, including more than 20 plastic bags, small towels, surgical gloves, sweatpants, duct tape, pieces of plastic and a golf ball.

Earth Day is a good day to celebrate our environmental accomplishments, but we shouldn't let what we have achieved block our view of a greener, more responsible future.

Editorial Board
Happy Earth Day
The Columbian, April 22, 2010

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