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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.''

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.

Sociologist Riley E. Dunlap closely follows public opinion on environmental issues and attributes the decline during the mid- to late '70s to several factors: actual improvements achieved by government, the fact that a lot of money was spent on the problem, and media boredom. Even so, Dr. Dunlap says that ``people's values didn't really change, they just felt they didn't have to worry about it as much because the government was taking care of the problem.''

Dunlap attributes the increase in public concern since 1980 to two factors: the realization by millions of Americans that hazardous wastes are a threat to their families' health, and a growing distrust of the government's role in environmental protection. ``The public's assumption that everything was taken care of was destroyed by the Reagan administration,'' he says. A bipartisan issue

Political observers say, however, that no single party can claim a monopoly on environmental legislation. On Capitol Hill, even the staunchest Democrat will admit that the environment is not a partisan issue. ``It doesn't have anything to do with whether you are a Republican or a Democrat. These issues have tended to be bipartisan,'' says Ken Murphy, executive director of the Environmental and Energy Study Institute in Washington, D.C.

The last session of Congress was the most active on environmental issues in more than a decade, largely the result of close cooperation between a Republican Senate and Democratic House of Representatives.

The focus of concern is therefore aimed at the White House, where President Reagan vetoed the Clean Water Act (which passed Congress without opposition), and on the Office of Management and Budget, which environmentalists complain keeps a tight rein on new federal regulations to reduce pollution. The long list of legislative accomplishments shows the growing effectiveness of the environmental lobby, and the degree to which Congress has accepted the environmental agenda.

The influx of activists concerned solely with hazardous wastes may pose a problem for the traditional environmental community, according to Gibbs and others. ``These people are not environmentalists,'' she explains, ``they are ordinary people being threatened by environmental hazards.''

These new activists share no common history with environmentalists. They are harder to organize and categorize. Their interest is primarily with health and economic issues. They are concerned, not because they feel any particular affinity for the outdoors, but because they are frightened by the presence of toxic waste dumps in their neighborhoods.

While he is glad that more people are aware of the various threats to the environment, Mike Clark at the Environmental Policy Institute is not sure this growing mass of concern ``can launch a political movement, because the issues get more complex and more diffused. ... I don't think [the environmental groups] are marshaling our resources very well to deal with that new reality.''

Another major trend in the environmental arena is greater state and local involvement in environmental policymaking.

``If you look around the country,'' Mr. Clark says, ``you see hundreds of groups that have been set up to deal with a particular issue, [and they] are very active. They are trying to get state and local governments to deal with specific issues in their communities. I think [President] Reagan has been successful in pushing his concept that all these issues should be dealt with other than on a federal level.''

A telling example of this occurred during the last election, which broke all records for getting environmental initiatives on state ballots. This was largely due to statewide petition drives involving thousands of volunteers.

In Massachusetts, the ``Toxics Initiative'' passed by a 73 percent margin, the largest majority in the state's history for ballot initiatives. The new measure requires the cleanup of hazardous waste sites not covered by the federal Superfund program. New Jersey passed by 66 percent a $200 million bond issue to clean up toxics, and New York voters gave their support for a $1.45 billion environmental bond issue. The state of Nevada will buy $31 million worth of Lake Tahoe real estate to prevent development due to an initiative there.

``It is important that states be able to put their own `spin' on environmental regulations as long as they comply with federal standards,'' says Thomas W. Curtis, staff director of the energy and environment committee at the National Governors' Association.

The problem, he says, is that while states want the authority, they also need additional resources. ``The EPA wants more permits, more inspections, more monitoring, but they don't give us any new money,'' he complains.

Mr. Curtis accuses the EPA of trying to micro-manage current state activities, while ignoring emerging issues such as setting national standards for toxic substances in the air or pesticides in ground water. As a result, some states have been setting their own guidelines.

Massachusetts decided it couldn't wait any longer for federal action and is developing its own standards for over 100 air pollutants. California has approved more than 90 laws covering toxic substances since 1983.

Another Reagan-era trend is the growing acceptance of economic incentives in achieving environmental objectives. Sierra Club political director Carl Pope tells club members that ``incentives and disincentives work better than rules. Environmentalists have been far too cautious about adopting strategies that use taxes, fees, and similar methods, and far too enamored of complicated regulations.''

The EPA has established several policies that provide incentives for companies to reduce pollution without specific federal regulations. These policies include:

Offset policy. A community or region can offset new sources of pollution (for example, from new industries) by persuading old sources of pollution to reduce their emissions.

Bubble policy. Instead of a community, a single company is treated as if it were in a bubble, allowing it to trade off emission levels among different components as long as the overall pollution level remained within the regulations.

Banking policy. This allows companies to ``bank'' or credit current emission reductions against possible future increases.

Frederic D. Krupp, executive director of the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), describes the integration of economic factors into a problem-solving approach to environmental issues as the next stage of the movement. ``As environmentalists enter a whole new stage in the revolution, those groups that want to survive, prosper, and be effective need to become solution oriented. The American public is fed up with environmentalists that walk around saying, `No, don't do this.' We are past the point as a nation where we can afford to have a faction that is consistently negative.''

EDF is labeled the ``right wing'' environmental group by critics who shun cooperation with industry. But Mr. Krupp ignores the barbs. ``The challenging part is to be able to have a vision for how society can expand, how the economy can grow, how industries can make more products, how we can deliver more services....''

This new vision of the future is more than a change in domestic issues and tactics. It also entails a change in perspective. Moving from Times Beach to the high seas, and from the corridors of Congress to the halls of the United Nations, the environmental movement is lifting its sights to global issues.

Environmentalists are tackling issues like global warming and the destruction of tropical rain forests. To paraphrase one environmentalist, ``We don't want to win the battle at home, only to find we lost it for the world.''

Next: The international dimensions of a movement in transition.

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