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Earth Day, then and now

SUN-GAZETTE ARCHIVES While there may not have been big news stories about local observances in the early years of the Earth Day, there was plenty of attention paid in the region to environmental efforts. On April 19, 1971, young trees were distributed as part of a “Trees for Tomorrow” program of the Lycoming County Soil and Water Conservation District. The program, which was conducted just days before the second Earth Day, was described in the Williamsport Sun-Gazette as being “for both beautification and environmental effects.” Here, Mr. and Mrs. Paul H. Eberhart of Memorial Avenue pick up Colorado blue spruce and Austrian pine trees ordered earlier in the year. Fred Smith, left, and Edward Greenaway, of the district office, handled the distribution from the lot at the Divine Providence Hospital.

The year was 1970. The Beatles had released their final album, “Let It Be,” after announcing the month before that they were going their separate ways. Punk rock was on the rise and the Cold War and the war in Vietnam continued.

On April 17 of that year, the crew of Appollo 13 had splashed down in the Pacific Ocean following their disastrous mission. Five days later on April 22, millions of people gathered across the country to observe the first Earth Day.

A fundraising and awareness ad in the New York Times in January 1970 announcing Earth Day, read: “A disease has infected our country. It has brought smog to Yosemite, dumped garbage in the Hudson, sprayed DDT in our food and left our cities in decay. Its carrier is man.”

Almost a decade before in 1962, Rachel Carson’s book, “Silent Spring,” had been published. It detailed Carson’s hypothesis that synthetic pesticides, particularly DDT, were killing birds.

In 1969, the Cuyahoga River, which wound its way through the center of Cleveland past the steel mills and factories on its way to Lake Erie, caught fire. It was seen as an extreme example of pollution.

Earlier in that year, the Santa Barbara oil spill, which is now considered the third largest ever in the country, occurred. These three things are credited with providing the impetus for people to come together seeking an answer to the growing evidence that this country, and the world, were headed for a breakdown in the environment.

Earth Day 2019 is today, and among the ways local people will commemorate it will be with a city-wide litter clean-up through the week. The event is being named after the late Richard James, a member of Heart of Williamsport, who was instrumental in having the group organize the litter clean-up.

The Middle Susquehanna Riverkeeper Carol Parenzan has been working with students at the West Branch School to author a children’s book over the Earth Day period.

“We are collaborating with a team of 15 young authors at West Branch School to write a family friendly children’s book about river stewardship, which will include actions we can all do as caretakers of our beautiful Susquehanna River each and every day. We hope to share it with the public this summer,” Parenzan said.

Parenzan said Earth Day isn’t something that happens just once a year for a riverkeeper.

“We celebrate Earth Day every day. Middle Susquehanna Riverkeeper is one of 340 water keepers around the world on six continents in 44 countries working tirelessly every day for swimmable, drinkable, fishable water. We champion clean water action to protect our waterways and the lands (drainage area) around them,” she said.

Her organization is also making plans for events throughout the summer to raise awareness of environmental issues, including a floating classroom program on the Hiawatha starting Memorial Day weekend and the fourth annual Sunrise Sunset Susquehanna Paddle and Play event on June 29.

“The river belongs to us all, Parenzan said.

Following the first Earth Day, the government responded to the growing concern for the environment by creating the Environmental Protection Agency, and enacting environmental laws such as the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act. But, according to Parenzan, there is still much to be done.

“Overall, the Susquehanna River, like most waterways, appears less polluted. We have come a long way since the first Earth Day and the implementation of our Clean Water Act in 1972,” she said.

She cited one of the biggest challenges to the environmental health of waterways — plastics.

“With each high-water storm event, we are washing a significant amount of plastics, paper, styrofoam, and other items into our river. We see what is left behind as the water level drops,” she said.

“We are also noticing plastic blow-offs as we drive by our landfills after a wind event and watching fast-food wrappers and cups roll down our highway, finding home in drainage ditches. Ultimately, these pieces of plastic will find their way into our streams and rivers, and as they break down, these smaller pieces (microplastics) are more difficult to capture and repurpose,” she said.

Another source of pollution which is not so apparent is the impact of pharmaceuticals on drinking water.

“This is not limited to the flushing of unused medications, but the prescribed use and bodily elimination of properly taken medications, both prescribed and over the counter, and personal care products,” Parenzan said.

“We have made great strides … but have a distance yet to go. Thank you to everyone who not only makes a difference but is the difference, demonstrated by their personal daily choices,” she said.

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