Earth Day, the EPA, and My Family

The first Earth Day occurred in 1970.  That was also the same year that the EPA was created.  Now, the EPA is a little more special to me than it is for the average person.  Yes, it produces environmental legislation, and yes, it works to ensure that we don't go overboard throwing large amounts of chemical waste throughout our country, but it does so much more than that.

I've noticed, however, that most people see the EPA as a joke.  These tend to be people who haven't been personally touched by its actions, and that makes their lack of respect for the EPA totally understandable. 

It also means, however, that those of us who do have stories have the responsibility to tell people about them.  How can you have respect for a government organization when all you've seen is talk and paperwork?  How can you understand something's importance when you haven't heard about a positive change that it's made in someone's life?  It's possible to have this respect, but it's not very probable.

So I want to tell my family's story.

My great-grandfather came to this country in the 1920s.  He was a fisherman, so his chosen home became the shore of Lake Superior, not far from the Split Rock Lighthouse.  He spent his life on the north shore, and was a great fisherman.

Being a great fisherman, he was able to notice when things began to change throughout the waters of the lake in the 1950s.  What he noticed was that the water was becoming unnaturally dirty.  Unnaturally dirty water means that some fish - especially the herring that people in that area are so fond of - were no longer swimming in areas they used to frequent.  He and my great uncle had to go seven miles out from shore just to be able to catch anything!

The reason?  Reserve Mining in the community of Silver Bay was dumping its waste rock into the lake.  The resultant breakdown of that rock into fine particles was killing the fish, because they couldn't lay their eggs in the new, gooey sediment. 

Fighting a mining company, as you can imagine, isn't easy.  Huge amounts of people became involved.  While my great-grandfather and great uncle spoke at meetings and raised awareness of this plight that was destroying their livelihood, people throughout the area were having bake sales at schools, and anywhere else they could, gathering donations so that they could fight what was happening to the lake.

Had the EPA not been created in 1970, who knows what would have happened?  My family, as well as others, had complained to the government for years about what was happening, and they had gotten nowhere.

It wasn't until the newly formed EPA stepped in and filed a lawsuit against Reserve Mining Co. for violating the Rivers and Harbors Act of 1899, that things finally started to get moving.  Scientists were sent in, and one EPA chemist made a frightening discovery: there were fibers carried in the water from the dumpsite that were similar in structure to asbestos - a cancer causing agent. 

Even with this information, the fight wasn't over.  It continued for quite some time, and there were many heroes both within the EPA and the general community that eventually helped win this environmental victory.  Eventually, Reserve Mining was given an April 15, 1980 deadline to move all of its waste inland, rather than the outpouring into the lake that it had done since its construction. 

I'll always be grateful for the creation of the EPA.  It enabled my family members to continue their way of life, and removed a major source of danger from the shores of Lake Superior.  Its job is more difficult now than it was back then, since it's not always as easy to discover violations in this generation, but it shouldn't be seen as a joke.

This Earth Day, I'm celebrating the great achievements the EPA has helped to accomplish, and reminding myself that we all need to actively help the environment, rather than just "plant a tree" or wear some silly shirt that declares support for Earth Day.  Actions, after all, speak louder than words, and I want to ensure that my actions are environmentally responsible.