DEQ Director’s Message for Earth Day 2020

Fifty years ago, when we began celebrating the planet by dedicating a day to it, I lived in a place called Musketaquid by the first people of the area – the Algonquin.  Musketaquid means “the place where the waters flow through the grasses.” The waters are two rivers – the Assabet and the Sudbury – that join together to form the Concord River in eastern Massachusetts, 20 miles west of Boston.

Back then I would cross the Assabet on my way to and from school – and some days I would make my mother very nervous by disappearing for hours along its banks.

Fifty years ago, in eighth grade, I knew about the mills that dumped dye into the Assabet. But there were many things I didn’t know.

I didn’t know that on the other river – the Sudbury (where I worked weekends at a local boathouse), the river was heavily polluted by mercury. From 1917 to 1978 the Nyanza Color & Chemical Company operated a textile dye factory that dumped wastewater into a tributary of the Sudbury named Chemical Brook. EPA estimates that 45 to 57 metric tons of mercury were released to the Sudbury River over this period, and a no-fishing advisory remains in place today.

Fifty years ago I also didn’t know that the farmworker kids I went to school with sometimes helped out in the fields, and that it was still common in those days to spray with DDT and other pesticides that posed great risks for human health and the environment. And, as I continue to learn, there are many more things I don’t know.

The first Earth Day, on April 22, 1970 was the beginning of a broader awakening for me and many others about the effects of our ways of life on the health of our communities and the environment. My eighth-grade class spent the day picking up trash near Walden Pond and getting inspired to take direct action to care for our own community. Thankfully, that learning continues today.

Fifty years ago, after a period of 25 years of reckless headlong growth following World War II, we began to recognize the consequences of our actions. In the United States, our leaders from all political stripes enacted comprehensive protections for the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the lands we inhabit. We treated many of the symptoms of our post-war society. And this work made the planet a better place for many.

We succeeded back then by getting kids and moms and dads and grandparents and neighbors and friends involved in their communities, by everyone working together to make things better in their own back yards.

Today, with a major public health pandemic pushing us apart physically, and pulling large parts of our economy down, it can be hard to see how we come back together as communities in the same way to help our planet over the next 50 years. But we must. Just as we began to realize in the 1960s and 70s what we had done to our air, our land, and our waters, we now know what our society is doing to the long-term health and survival of the planet.

To stop the catastrophic climate emergency that is about to engulf us, we are going to have to change how we produce, consume and dispose of things, from plastic cups and straws, to the energy we have come to enjoy, to where and how we live and work. Making these changes in ways that are fair and equitable to all parts of society will be even more challenging.

The events of the last month show that we are still capable of working together to confront a common threat. Yes, there are places to point fingers and complain. Yes, there will always be the push and pull of politics. But the world is capable of change, even if that change is messy. And as we work our way out of the pandemic, please stop for a day – this day in particular – to think about the next 50 years and what steps you will take in your community so that you can tell your kids and grandkids that you acted to make this planet a healthier, better place.

–Richard Whitman, Director

Published by Oregon Department of Environmental Quality

DEQ’s mission is to be a leader in restoring, maintaining and enhancing the quality of Oregon’s air, land and water.

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