a newspaper man adjusts his pen

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Happy Earth Day

Trash builds up around an illegal burn pile a few years ago in Denbo, Pa. It seems we have met with little or no success in preventing slobs from tossing about their litter alongside roadways. In honor of the 40th Earth Day, here is something I wrote for the Observer-Reporter newspaper in Washington, Pa., when the event turned 30.

Nearly four decades into the environmental movement, guardians of the planet can thank themselves for cleaner air and water.

But activists looking forward to Earth Day Thursday say more needs to be done to protect the environment. For example, residents of Washington and Greene counties could be doing more when it comes to reducing the amount of trash sent to landfills, state officials say. 

"I see some problems," said Lisa Cessna, Washington County's assistant planning director who oversees local recycling efforts. 

Across the state, many counties have far exceeded the state recycling goal to reduce the amount of trash dumped at landfills by 25 percent, said Rick Morrison, spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Protection. Because most efforts have been so successful, the DEP has raised that goal to 35 percent by 2002. 

But in Washington County, recycling efforts had only reduced the trash taken to landfills by 14.7 percent in 1996, the most current recycling statistics available. In Greene, the efforts had reduced trash by 4.4 percent. 

For the most part, the lagging efforts are blamed on lack of centralized collection sites for people to take plastics, cans and glass. Fayette County has a centralized drop-off center, and it reduced trash through recycling by 44.4 percent in 1996. 

And many communities in Washington County don't meet the 5,000 or more population requirement to mandate recycling programs. None of the municipalities in Greene falls under the mandate. 

Aside from recycling, many environmental projects locally as well as across the state are exploding with interest and accomplishments.

More and more people each year volunteer to pick up trash along state roads and waterways.
Last year, 1,540 volunteers took part in the annual River Sweep in June across Southwestern Pennsylvania. They removed more than 50 tons of trash and nearly 900 tires from streams and river banks last year, said Betsy Mallison, DEP spokeswoman in Pittsburgh. The amount of trash removed and the number of volunteers have significantly improved since the sweep began in the region in 1990, she said. 

And nearly 500 new groups are added each year to the list of participants in the annual litter pickup, Keep Pennsylvania Beautiful, which will be held Saturday. 

But they seldom win the war of ridding the state of roadside garbage. 

"I see those highways as clean as clean can be ... and the next day somebody throws garbage on the road," said Madeleine John, who coordinates the effort in the region for the state Department of Transportation. 

"What do you do about the people who don't care if you throw out garbage?" she said.
"There's still a lot of trash we have to get to," added DEP spokeswoman Rita Zettelmayer. 

She said the number of groups that monitor water quality in small streams also is increasing. They call themselves watershed alliances, and several are at work in Washington and Greene counties. 

For the past two years, Dr. Robert A. Vargo, a professor at California University of Pennsylvania, and his students have been monitoring a section of West Pike Run and its tributaries in Eastern Washington County. They are keeping watch of the water because it is polluted with iron and aluminum that seeps from a reclaimed strip mine in West Pike Run Township. 

The DEP's Bureau of Abandoned Mine Reclamation receives free field workers, and Vargo, who is chairman of the Pike Run Watershed Association, has the opportunity to give his students hands-on experience. 

The students in his field and hydrology class routinely take samples of the orange- and white-stained water and send them to Harrisburg for testing. The test results will determine what kind of treatment facility will be needed to filter out the pollution. 

"You need industry, but yet you need somebody to clean it up after, and that's what we try to do," said Bill Knizner of Marianna, a Cal U. senior participating in the project. 

He is surprised to find wildflowers growing in the middle of the polluted stream. The class also is finding that there is enough water flow to dilute the acid. 

"I wouldn't drink this water," said Vargo, who recalls the beginnings of the environmental movement.
He was a schoolteacher in the 1960s in Springdale, Allegheny County, the hometown of Rachel Carson, who is credited with starting the movement. 

Carson's 1962 book, "Silent Spring," predicted the dangers of misusing pesticides. The scientist and ecologist also testified before Congress the following year on the need for policies to protect health and the environment.

Also in 1963, then-U.S. Sen. Gaylord Nelson, D-Wisconsin, pressed President Kennedy to embrace an environmental platform.

But the movement did not pick up speed until 1970, when Nelson called for an environmental sit-in in Washington, D.C., to shake up the political establishment, according to Nelson's Web site. Twenty million people attended the protest in the spring of that year. That protest is now considered the first Earth Day. 

"One positive thing of the environmental movement is it caused people to take notice," Vargo said. "We can't shut down society. We can't shut down industry, but somebody has to act as a safeguard."

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