Saturday is Earth Day. My wife and then almost 2-year-old son attended the first Earth Day observances in Washington, D.C., in 1970. It was a time of immense social and political upheaval, with the anti-Vietnam War movement spreading like a fierce prairie fire. I was just out of the Army and attending grad school in College Park. Times were uncertain if not threatening, and we were comforted by listening to Simon and Garfunkel sing of a "Bridge Over Troubled Water" that would give us solace "when darkness comes and pain is all around."

The one positive note was the bi-partisan approach to a movement dedicated to saving the world's environment. Wisconsin Democratic Sen. Gaylord Nelson joined forces with Pete McCloskey, a Republican congressman from California, to raise the country's consciousness about the indiscriminate despoiling of our air, oceans, rivers, lakes and streams. In 1969, there had been a massive oil spill in Santa Barbara, coupled with an oil slick on the Cuyahoga River, a tributary to Lake Erie, that caught fire after decades of industries dumping industrial chemicals and raw sewage into the Great Lakes.


The result of Nelson's and McCloskey's efforts was Earth Day, a "national teach-in on the environment" on April 22, 1970. It attracted 20 million Americans who demonstrated in streets, parks, and town halls for a sustainable and healthy environment. By year's end, a besieged President Richard Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency, and we saw the passage of the Clean Air, Clean Water and Endangered Species acts.

Let's fast-forward 47 years. According to the EPA, Clean Air Act programs have lowered levels of pollutants such as particles, ozone, lead, carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide and sulfur dioxide. From 1970 to 2015, the combined emissions of these six common pollutants dropped an average of 70 percent. That means we all enjoy lower risks of premature death and lung-related disease. And despite the Cassandra-like warnings that clean air regulations would strangle the nation's economy, gross domestic product has grown by 246 percent during this time.

Most of our waterways are unequivocally cleaner today than in 1970. Even our own Chesapeake Bay has shown some modest progress. However, this is not the case for tap water. The EPA has warned that "we can no longer take our drinking water for granted." In 2010, the Environmental Working Group reported that the "probable human carcinogen chromium-6" was found in at least 35 U.S. cities' water supplies. And a 2016 Harvard study discovered unsafe levels of polyfluoroalkyl and perfluoroalkyl substances in the drinking water of 33 states. These substances are industrial chemicals linked with cancer, hormone disruption and other health problems.

So, there is still much work to be done in pursuit of a clean and safe environment. No one wants dirty air and water, right? Wrong. There's an unholy triumvirate of climate change deniers, bought-and-paid-for politicians and energy industry lobbyists polluting the narrative. They've done so to such an extent that we now have a president and an EPA director who deny 40-plus years of climate science and have pledged to weaken, if not dismantle, the EPA.

Mike Cox recently retired from his job at the EPA after 25 years, but not without sending a letter to Scott Pruitt, the agency's new administrator. Cox wrote, "The policies this Administration is advancing are contrary to what the majority of the American people ... want EPA to accomplish, which are to ensure the air their children breathe is safe; the land they live, play, and hunt on to be free of toxic chemicals; and the water they drink, the lakes they swim in, and the rivers they fish in to be clean."

Cox is rightly demoralized by President Donald Trump's and Pruitt's positions on the environment that are in open conflict with not only science but common sense. With the aim of minimizing federal involvement at the state level and giving big business fewer regulations, the administration plans to lay off 25 percent of EPA's employees and scrap 56 programs including pesticide safety, water runoff control, restoring watersheds and coastal and marine habitats like the Chesapeake Bay, and research that studies such health hazards as lead, poor indoor air quality, radiation and radon. Sad. The EPA estimates that radon causes as many as 21,000 lung cancer deaths annually.

Excuse me. I have a sudden urge to listen to Simon and Garfunkel sing about that bridge again.

Frank Batavick writes from Westminster. His column appears Fridays. Email him at