Remembering a City Where the Smog Could Kill
With the future of the E.P.A. now in doubt, it’s worth recalling what New York City was like before the agency and the movement it represented.
@NYTMetro: Once upon a time, you could touch the air in New York. Then the E.P.A. helped clear the air.
Once upon a time, you could touch the air in New York. It was that filthy. No sensible person would put a toe in most of the waterways.
In 1964, Albert Butzel moved to New York City, which then had the worst air pollution among big cities in the United States.
“I not only saw the pollution, I wiped it off my windowsills,” Mr. Butzel, 78, an environmental lawyer, said. “You’d look at the horizon and it would be yellowish. It was business as normal.”
The dawning of environmental consciousness in the United States during the 1960s led to a national commitment to clean air and water with the creation, in 1970, of the Environmental Protection Agency. It came not a moment too soon for New York City, not to mention the nation.
Today, the future and mission of the E.P.A. are in doubt as President Trump is reported to be calling for the agency’s budget to be cut by 24 percent, a reduction of more than $2 billion. Mr. Trump has also instructed the agency to undo certain regulations protecting waterways. He is expected to issue an order reversing rules to curb planet-warming gases from coal-fired power plants.
It’s worth reflecting that New York City before the E.P.A. and the movement it represented would be almost unrecognizable in 2017.
In the 1960s, my playmates and I stopped everything when it began “snowing” ash from incinerated garbage. We chased tiny scraps of partly burned paper that floated in the air as if they were blackened snowflakes. According to a study published in 2001, the quantities of lead in the sediments of the Central Park Lake correlated strongly with the vast quantities of particles emitted from garbage burned in Manhattan during the 20th century. The study found 32 garbage incinerators that were operated by the city, and 17,000 others in apartment houses.
Many power plants in the city were fueled with coal and heavy grades of oil, which led to noxious emissions.
Thanksgiving weekend in 1966 was warm, and a haze of smog — sulfur dioxide and carbon monoxide — wrapped around the city. About 200 people died, a toll similar to a smog crisis in 1953.
Whether from polluted air or heavy cigarette smoking, the fastest-growing cause of death in New York during the 1960s was pulmonary emphysema. Deaths from chronic bronchitis also soared.
“On the autopsy table it’s unmistakable,” a city medical examiner told The New York Times in 1970. “The person who spent his life in the Adirondacks has nice pink lungs. The city dweller’s are black as coal.”
Under pressure from city and federal regulators, as well as citizen activists, including Marcy Benstock of the New York City Clean Air Campaign, the final apartment incinerators were closed in 1993, and the last municipal incinerator was torn down in 1999.
Waterways around the city were, if anything, worse than the air. “Huge quantities of untreated sewage are pumped into New York Harbor continually,” The New York Times reported in 1970.
Companies along the Hudson River, particularly General Electric and General Motors, drained and leaked chemicals into the river.
And the Hudson, in all its majesty, was little more than an extension of millions of toilets; 170 million gallons of raw sewage were discharged into it every day, according to Ned Sullivan, president of Scenic Hudson, a conservation and environmental protection group.
In 1965, Nelson Rockefeller, the governor of New York, said, “The river from Troy to the south of Albany is one great septic tank that has been rendered nearly useless for water supply, for swimming, or to support the rich fish life that once abounded there.”
Similar conditions prevailed in Jamaica Bay.
In the Adirondacks, acid rain was destroying aquatic and plant life — a result of power plant emissions that had blown hundreds of miles east, from as far west as Ohio.
Today, federal regulatory efforts have largely alleviated acid rain in New York; the idea that every state can take care of its own environmental issues — a claim President Trump made during the campaign, in a promise to shut down the E.P.A. — ignores the mobility of pollutants. There’s only one sky.
Most of the sewage contamination of the Hudson is long gone, Mr. Sullivan said. Under the federal Clean Water Act, New York and local governments received grants or loans from the federal government to build sewage treatment plants.
Private citizens have standing to sue over environmental issues, a principle established during the 1960s by litigation from Scenic Hudson. If the E.P.A.’s authority wanes, that citizen power from a half-century ago is likely to be invoked more than ever.