THE Cuyahoga River looked like a thousand other rivers as it meandered through northern Ohio, passing the Cleveland city limits just before it emptied into Lake Erie. Then it caught fire. With flames shooting 200 feet high, the floating inferno burned bridges and melted railroad tracks, curling the rails like candy canes. About two decades earlier and 150 miles southwest in Donora, Pa., the town's eight doctors were swamped with phone calls around 2 a.m. Hundreds of people were having trouble breathing - a lot of trouble. Twenty died, several hundred more had to be evacuated. ``It's murder,'' exclaimed one doctor; ``there is nothing else you can call it.''Skip to next paragraph
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The oil-slick fires on the Cuyahoga in 1969 and the suffocating air pollution in Donora in 1948 grabbed America's attention, offering graphic examples of expanding environmental degradation occurring throughout the country.
Ecological concern peaked about a year after the river fire in Cleveland, when massive public-awareness campaigns rallied Americans to the environmental cause in the nationwide observance of Earth Day in April 1970.
In the wake of Earth Day, stringent air and water pollution legislation enacted by Congress soon subdued public outcry. And while environmentalists struggled to maintain the same high pitch of public concern, their memberships and donations either leveled off or declined. There were plenty of issues, but nothing seemed to catch the public's eye.
But just as the nation started to relax, headlines on Love Canal and Times Beach revealed the Cuyahoga of the '80s. Instead of burning rivers and deadly smog from local steel plants, communities all over America discovered toxic substances on their land and in their water.
It was about this time that public opinion surveys began to show mounting concern, due largely to Reagan administration policies and a growing awareness of the dangers posed by hazardous waste. While the White House dragged its feet, Congress plunged ahead, closely following the polls as it, too, shifted its attention to toxics.
Several other important trends have emerged: The new citizen activists are different - typically parents are more concerned with chemicals in their family's drinking water than in traditional conservationist rhetoric; environmental federalism is becoming a reality, with a gradual shift to state and local solutions for pollution problems; and, in what one environmentalist describes as the ``next stage of the revolution,'' there is a growing acceptance of economic incentives designed to entice rather than coerce industry compliance with environmental goals.
New converts joined the ranks from what some activists refer to as the ``tap water rebellion,'' a growing number of Americans angered by threats to their health and declining property values as local water wells became contaminated by hazardous wastes. Over 71 billion gallons of hazardous wastes are generated every year in the United States, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has already found over 20,000 waste sites that potentially need cleaning up. Never before have so many Americans become so thoroughly involved.
``Instead of showing up in three-piece suits and [with] briefcases, these people arrive in windbreakers and sweat shirts,'' says Lois Marie Gibbs, executive director of the Citizens Clearinghouse for Hazardous Waste. ``They do not compromise like the experienced environmentalists. They ask nicely once, and then come back with signs and the media.''
She says that while seasoned environmentalists will settle for a site cleaned up to current federal standards, local residents want it as clean as the next neighborhood. ``No one wants to raise children on what today's scientists say is safe,'' Ms. Gibbs explains.
The shifting sands of public concern can best be traced through opinion polls. Looking back, air and water pollution ranked ninth in a 1965 Gallup poll. When asked the same question after Earth Day in 1970, Americans rated environmental concerns second only to crime reduction.