1970-1979: ERA OF CRISES

Environmentalism got boost from new laws in the '70s

By BOB CAYLOR, of The News-Sentinel

Before 1970, the handful of pioneer environmentalists in Allen County concentrated on preserving natural areas, from Fox Island County Park to the Indiana Dunes National Park.

Then a wave of federal legislation in the '70s changed everyday life here and throughout the country. The new laws made environmentalism a top issue and provided local activists with powerful new tools to clean up our own back yard.

Three laws are at the core of the federal regulation that began in the '70s: the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, which regulated how solid waste is handled. They would touch virtually every business and household in the country, and add broad new areas to local activist agendas.

The most prominent longtime environmentalists in Allen County, Tom and Jane Dustin, were activists before "environmentalist" ever entered the language.

In the 1950s and '60s, they helped preserve a section of the Indiana Dunes along Lake Michigan that had been targeted for industrial development. In the '60s, Tom Dustin led a campaign that stopped an Army Corps of Engineers plan to turn long stretches of the Wabash River into what would have amounted to navigable canals.

This natural preservation worked on a smaller scale locally, too. ACRES, which acquires and preserves smaller natural areas in northeast Indiana, was created in 1960. Also in the '60s, Tom Dustin was involved in establishing Fox Island Park in southwest Allen County.

The new environmental laws of the 1970s handed Jane Dustin and others new opportunities.

Fort Wayne resident Ethyle Bloch remembers canoeing the rivers of Allen County with Jane Dustin in long, meticulous searches for discharges flowing from industries -- discharges that were illegal under the Clean Water Act.

Soon after it took effect, she and Jane Dustin "went out and visited industries involved. ... We worked on the sewage treatment plant here, too," she said.

The point was simple. They wanted to persuade the large polluters to comply with federal regulation. They inspected facilities to see whether they complied with their permits under the Clean Water Act.

Nationally, environmental problems made bigger news in the 1970s than ever before.

* Beginning in 1978, the federal government spent more than $100 million to relocate residents of 1,000 homes in Love Canal, a neighborhood in Niagara Falls, N.Y., after the homes were contaminated by buried toxic wastes.

* In 1979, an accident at Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania released radioactive gas. Although plant operators said it posed little danger to neighbors, thousands fled the area. No new nuclear plants have been built since.

* Pollution regulation cleaned up automobile exhaust, but international political crises in 1973 and 1979 sent gas prices from about 35 cents to more than $1 a gallon.

Environmentalism would never again be the province of little-heard prophets predicting distant problems. It became a mainstream issue and has remained so since.

Dave Camperman, enviromental specialist with the Fort Wayne-Allen County Department of Health, has worked in the health department for 35 years. In the '70s he began to specialize in environmental issues, a move he said was prompted by the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, which regulates landfills and solid-waste disposal.

He saw firsthand that environmental awareness no longer was a hobby pursued by a few activists. Ordinary people across the county began calling local governments when they saw discolored streams, for example, or open dumping.

It's hard to say whether government enforcement led people to call and complain, or whether the complaints led government to enforce -- or at least clean up the messes.

"It was a combination," Camperman said. "We began to think it was important to do something, and people began to see that we'd do something if they called."

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