THE POLITICS OF ECOLOGY exposes the attempts made by some of America's worst corporate polluters to wrap themselves in a mantle of environmental responsibility at the time of the first Earth Day, in 1970. While Richard Nixon publicly welcomed Earth Day, hoping it would serve to distract the public's attention from the Vietnam War, his administration and politicians of both parties worked behind the scenes to co-opt and gut an environmental movement that seemed poised to become a powerful force for change. This book provides an overview of both the technical and the political aspects of the struggle for a better environment, covering the time period from the late nineteenth century to 1970. The book concentrates on water and air pollution, and includes detailed discussions of the technology of sewage treatment, the major polluting activities of the big oil companies, and the ambiguous role played by the movement for population control.



All excerpts copyright©1970 by James Ridgeway

Ecology became a popular issue during the early spring of 1970 because it momentarily offered the prospect of a new politics, a new set of symbols with which to rework the social order.

Ecology offered liberal-minded people what they had longed for, a safe, rational and above all peaceful way of seeming to re-make society, limiting the growth of capitalism, preserving the natural resources through pollution control, developing a more coherent central state; in short, establishing programs and plans for correcting the flaws in what many perceived to be a fundamentally reliable, sound political system.

Advanced and progressive industrialists shared this perception. Since the beginning of the century, large corporations have often argued for national conservation policies. Beginning with the administration of Theodore Roosevelt, they entered into a partnership with government in managing those resources. The ecology issue offered them a chance to re-assert their primacy in that coalition.

Ecology touched millions of ordinary white middle-class people as no other political issued had for years. It aroused smoldering passions for a pre-industrial past, reviving the tradition of American individualism, of man in nature. But then, ecology also affirmed our faith in science, in the steady march of technology which could solve the problems of pollution.

For the Nixon government, stumbling amidst the wreckage of its own ambitions, ecology offered a domestic program that would seemingly divert attention away from Southeast Asia.

But the protestations of a President, the celebrations of Earth Day, a crusade by students with their arms full of non-returnable bottles, could not obscure the Indochina war, the organized political repression, economic disintegration, dissolution of the central government; all those signs of a society never before so split asunder, perched on the edge of ruinous race and class war.

Once the hysteria of the moment had passed, the politics of ecology seemed altogether dull, complicated and in the end paralyzing, bestowing on the participants a special sense of futility and alienation. It was an issue which told us only that we are all victims and that nothing changes.

Nonetheless, that exercise in futility had its point. It provided a cover behind which the ecology interests could wage their struggle for control of natural resources. This book sets out to explore that struggle, describing the underground war for control of the ware-pollution programs, the key to control of other environmental policies, and the battle among the petroleum trusts for domination of the world energy market. For our purposes, ecology embraces "pollution" and "conservation," words used at other times and in other contexts to describe the political economy's natural resource policy.


In the United States, during the first decade of the century, Progressive and Republican insurgents callings themselves "conservationists" joined forces in a concerted campaign to develop natural resources in what they believed to be an efficient manner. President Theodore Roosevelt, who led the campaign, termed conservation, "the chief material question that confronts us, second only-and second always-to the great fundamental question of morality." Roosevelt's interests were often utilitarian, and reminiscent of Chadwick's. To the President and his followers conservation meant devising a strong central nationalist system for controlling development of natural resources. The conservationists were concerned with proper management practices, and to achieve those ends often sided with large corporate interests.

Gifford Pinchot, the chief forester in Roosevelt's Administration, allied himself with the large cattle corporations against settlers and homesteaders in his determination to lease Federal range for grazing. Roosevelt complained that "people refuse to face squarely the proposition that much of these lands ought to be leased and fenced as pastures and that they cannot possibly be taken up with profit as small homesteads."

Roosevelt first opposed private utility operations on Federal property, and then worked with the power companies to help them develop sites. His Interior Secretary, James R. Garfield, a leading conservationist, aided oil prospectors in withdrawing lands from agricultural uses and reserving them for petroleum exploration. Led by Pinchot, the Roosevelt Administration backed groups of commercial and manufacturing interests who were eager to build deep inland waterways which businessmen hoped would reduce the high cost of shipping by rail. Small lumber men were bitter about Roosevelt's sell-out to the big lumber companies in his forest policy.


While many people remember the conservationists as forces of good, fighting it out with the special interests to save the land from savage rape, it must be remembered that they were not socialists. They objected to bad business, not to the idea of business. In practice, large corporations could most easily afford to take up the planning and efficiency concepts advocated by the conservationists.

The coalition between big business and big government, formally established during Theodore Roosevelt's Administration, has remained in force ever since. By the late 1930's, the conservationist campaign settled on water pollution.


Travelers going in and out of New York City from New Jersey pass through this industrial mire, an area of stinking bogs, with flames and putrid smoke belching into the sky from chimneys of oil and chemical companies. At the feet of these industrial engines, running amidst a clutter of towns and small cities, flows a foul-smelling sewer, the Arthur Kill, into which industries steadily pour all manner of refuse. The Kill lies between the New Jersey shore and Staten Island, terminating on the north in Newark Bay. At its southern outlet the accumulated filth is fed into the Raritan Bay, a body of water thirty square miles in area located beneath the sprawl of New York Harbor and designated since 1937 by New York and New Jersey as a playground for the 15 million people living in and around the city. Beneath this huge cesspool, close to where the Arthur Kill spills out its contents, other sewer pipes converge beneath the water's surface spewing forth 50 million gallons of human and industrial waste each day. In all, the sewage from 1.2 million people is pumped into this bay every twenty-four hours. Large amounts of inorganic waste also are deposited. This mass of putrefaction oozes about the New Jersey and Staten Island shores for several days, washing the beaches with great quantities of fecal bacteria, closing out the light and consuming the oxygen required by fish and other forms of marine and animal life, before sluggishly moving seaward on the outgoing tide.

Raritan Bay was designated Class "A" waters by the Interstate Sanitation Commission, the organization formed in 1935 by the states of New York and New Jersey to regulate interstate water pollution. The Roosevelt Administration regarded it as a model for future river-basin compacts. Class "A" means that the waters are to be used primarily for bathing, boating, fishing and other recreational purposes, as well as for the maintenance of a shell-fish industry. (Pollution has forced the closing of all but a small portion of the once prosperous shell-fish beds on the Raritan.) State health commissioners are members of the Interstate Sanitation Commission working independently and through the commission to enforce water standards.

The numerous tributaries, twisting tidal currents and the great increase of population and multiplicity of industry have combined to make abatement of pollution on the Raritan difficult. Even so, efforts by the states and the commission have been so belted and so feeble that the Bay is one of the worst sewers in the nation. In 1961, an outbreak of infectious hepatitis was traced to clams taken from the Raritan Bay, bacteria standards for which had not been enforced by the states. The hepatitis outbreak became an especially sore point because specialists in the US Public Health Service had carefully trace the hepatitis outbreak, made what they believed to be accurate correlations between victims and the clams, and offered what they considered to be overwhelming scientific evidence to prove the point. Nonetheless, the senior US health officials in New York, who were medical doctors, simply refused to send warning memoranda to their colleagues in the New Jersey state-health department, lest they be embarrassed.


It is nearly ten years since the Federal government entered the Raritan Bay to arrange for a clean-up; nothing much has happened except that population and industry have increased, adding to the levels of pollution.


The Nashua River, which flows through fifty miles of Massachusetts and then enters New Hampshire, has been formally polluted since 1936, and in 1967 the FWQA called the stream "one of the most disgusting rivers in the country." Between 1961 and 1965, the towns of Leominster and Ayer, Massachusetts, both of which discharge waste into the Nashua, were awarded $700,000 in Federal grants for construction of sewage projects. The resulting improvements were insignificant because, as the government well knew, 80 percent of the BOD discharged into the river comes from industrial sources which were clustered upstream from Ayer and Leominster at Fitchburg. The two biggest polluters at Fitchburg are Weyerhaeuser Paper Company and Fitchburg Paper. During the summer, the Nashua has a reduced flow, totaling about 8 million gallons a day at Fitchburg. During that period, the entire river flow goes through both the Weyerhaeuser Paper Company and Fitchburg Paper and then is expelled back into the river. At that point, the Nashua, practically an open sewer, flows on downstream, past Ayer and Leominster.

Fitchburg's own sewage system is outmoded, and, according to a state plan, it is meant to construct a facility costing $2 million. Under that plan the industries were expected to make their own improvements. However, on looking into this business, the GAO auditors discovered Fitchburg had changed its plans around, and proposed to build two separate waste-treatment plants for a total cost of $17 million. The planned projects would treat both industrial and municipal wastes. Both plants would be eligible for 50 percent grants from the FWQA. In this way, of course, the expense of cleaning up the river was shifted to the local citizenry who will bear the burden of paying of the sewer bonds ($15 million in excess of what was originally planned), and to the general taxpayers, who will pay for the program through the Federal grants program.


Under the mining law of 1872, anyone may enter Federal lands, except national parks and other areas specifically closed by law, to prospect for minerals. (The mining law pertains basically to metals: iron, copper, lead, uranium, etc. Coal, gas, oil phosphates, sulfur are covered by a separate law.) An individual may stake a claim of twenty acres, or up to 120 acres if joined with other people. The claim is filed with the county. Although the land is Federal, the government has no knowledge of a claim being filed. So long as the individual or company searches for minerals, he can file for a patent to the claim. After a prospector pays a fee of $2.50 per acre for a placer claim or $5 per acre for a lode claim, the government must give the prospector full title to the land, including title to the surface resources; which often include valuable timber. The fees were established in 1872; there are no regulations as to how the miner goes about his business. In exploring his claim, a prospector may cut a road through timber, bulldoze, dredge or strip at will. In fact, in some of the Western states, prospectors are encouraged to gouge the land. State laws require they dig a pit and throw up a works of sorts on each claim as proof they really are working it. In Wyoming, for example, mining companies bulldoze or plough big strips of land in search of jade, and then move on to new land without any attempt to restore the acreage they have just ravaged. In Arizona, where half the United States supply of cooper is produced, big open pit mines outside of Tucson use so much water that the water table has dropped, threatening a drought in the city. Great cliffs of mine wastes called tailings are built up around the mines. The wind blows the wastes into neighboring towns, causing severe air-pollution problems. The uranium companies have left big piles of radioactive tailings along the Colorado River, where they endanger the water supply. In Southern California, the 1872 law has become a subterfuge for acquiring land. According to the Interior department, some 2,000 claims have been filed there in recent years by individuals seeking public land for a residence or camping site. If the government wants to dislodge one of these "miners," it must proceed case by case, taking each one separately.