Environmental cleanup wins steady, hard-fought progress

"Man . . . will end by destroying the earth," Albert Schweitzer predicted long ago. America may yet prove him wrong.

Ten years into its environmental cleanup crusade, the United States can boast purer air, cleaner waters, and a more ecologically alert population -- a far cry from the environment's dark days in the early 1960s, when Rachael Carson used the above quote to preface her prophetic book, "silent Spring."

America's struggle with pollution -- a battle which cost an estimated $26.9 billion in 1978 alone -- is far from over. According to the Council on Environmental Quality's 10th annual report, released Feb. 19, toxic pollutants, hazardous wastes, and continuing air and water pollution pose serious problems in the years ahead.

But, the report says, a decade of environmental progress, which began in 1970 with the signing of the National Environmental Policy Act and the first Earth Day, has laid a framework for coping with those challenges.

Problems and progress cited in the 816-page report include:

* Air: Overall, the nation's air quality is improving, with major progress in reduction of pollution caused by automobiles and industrial plants.

According to government statistics, the average number of "unhealthful" days in 25 major metropolitan areas declined by 15 percent between 1974 and 1977. "Very unhealthful" days in those same areas declined by 32 percent.

However, the report stresses, air pollution still exists. In 1977, for example, the air quality in New York and Los Angeles was considered "unhealthful" (severe enough to cause breathing or eye irritations) two out of every three days of the year.

In addition, air pollution appears to be worsening in Houston and Cincinnati.

* Water: Although overall water quality has not shown "vast improvement" in the past decade, it has not gotten worse.

Waste water treatment plants and more tightly controlled industrial sewage disposal have accounted for cleaner rivers and waters. But, the report warns, much of that progress is threatened by toxic substances which the "nation is just beginning to understand and control."

Toxic pollutants such as PCB, for example, mean that although the Hudson River estuary is now clean enough for salmon to return after a 75-year absence, the fish are so contaminated with PCB that they cannot be eaten.

What is more, clean up of "nonpoint" pollution -- pollution not emanating from a single source and caused in part by urban runoff, mining, and agricultural, and forestry activities -- is expected to become increasingly difficult, involving questions of technology and enforcement.

It is relatively easy, for example, for federal enforcement officials or environmental watchdogs to target a person or industry dumping raw sewage into a river. But because nonpoint pollution is caused by a variety of factors -- and aggravated by rainfall -- it is much more difficult to track down and correct the source of pollution, according to the report.

Other water problems include contamination of ground water by improper disposal of toxic industrial wastes; acid rain, which, in the eastern United States, has increased in acidity by about 50 percent in the past 25 years; and a declining water surface supply in parts of the West and Midwest which "have now or will have serious surface water problems by the year 2000."

* Solid waste: Municipal solid waste, which rose at a rate of 5 percent a year between 1960 and 1970, dropped to 2 percent a year between 1970 and 1978. Still, despite that slowdown, Americans generated 154 million tons of solid waste in 1978, or 1,400 pounds per person, the report says.

That growing waste, in addition to an increasing shortage of land for use as disposal sites, has prompted many city officials to consider alternatives such as stepped-up recycling programs and "centralized resource recovery" which involves burning trash for its energy value at a central facility. In 1977, however, less than 1 percent of the nation's trash was converted to energy and about 7 percent was recycled.

Among the other more serious challenges cited by the report were the disposal of hazardous wastes -- a problem highlighted dramatically by the 1978 disaster in Love Canal, N.Y.; and severe soil erosion, estimated at 4 billion tons a year , which is reducing productivity of farmland in Iowa, Illinois, Ohio, Kentucky, and several other states.

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