The successes of the environmental movement can be seen in the air over America's industrial plants. The yellow haze is virtually gone.
Rivers no longer catch fire because of pollution as one did a quarter-century ago. And the American bald eagle, once about gone, is making a comeback, partly because of the banning of DDT.But marking the 25th anniversary of the first Earth Day on Saturday, environmental scholars fret that some of the progress is being threatened by a hostile Congress and predict the environmental challenges of the next 25 years will be far more difficult.
"The real question is: What happens now?" says Denis Hayes, who organized the first Earth Day rallies in 1970. In a speech to be delivered today, he calls on en-vi-ron-men-tal-ists to regroup, stop squabbling among themselves and fashion a new strategy for the future.
"We've made tremendous progress . . . and should take a moment to celebrate," Carol Browner, head of the Environmental Protection Agency, said in an interview.
But she acknowledged that over the past 25 years, "we've done the easy things" and the environmental problems of today and challenges of tomorrow "are in many ways more difficult to resolve."
In a speech Thursday at the National Press Club, Browner accused the new Congress of trying to "casually turn back the clock" and gut many of the landmark environmental laws the original Earth Day inspired. "In the past 100 days we've seen actions that threaten to roll back the progress of 25 years," she said.
Browner said regulatory reform proposals already passed by the House as part of the GOP's "Contract With America" would allow special interests to "tie up the work that we do, tie up the public health protections we seek to set."
The House has approved bills that would require the EPA and other regulators to perform more elaborate cost-benefit and risk assessment reviews, as well as legislation to require payment for losses in property values that result from enforcement of wetlands or endangered species laws. A House committee has approved an overhaul of the 1973 Clean Water Act the EPA says would dramatically weaken its ability to reduce water pollution.
Today, the air is cleaner, the water clearer and industry is spewing out fewer toxic chemicals. Sewage is no longer routinely dumped into lakes and streams. The erosion of wetlands has slowed.
The Cuyahoga River near Cleveland, which once caught fire because of pollution, is suitable for fishing. Children no longer breathe air filled with lead from passing automobiles and there is less smog, even though the number of cars has tripled. Corporations are finding out that pollution reduction can be profitable.
But, says Browner, the job is not complete.
She ticks off these statistics:
-Two of every five Americans still live in areas where the air does not always meet health standards.
-Forty percent of the nation's waterways are still too dirty to fish or swim in.
-One in four people lives within four miles of a toxic-waste dump.
And three decades after Rachel Carson warned in her book "Silent Spring" of the dangers of pesticides, "we have doubled the pounds of pesticides we use in producing the food we eat," says Browner. Many of the pesticides and fertilizers wash into rivers and lakes.
While some environmentalists worry about backsliding on such issues as clean water and healthful air, new and more complex ecological challenges are ahead.
"We have solved some of the problems that are easier to solve," says Fred Krupp, executive director of the Environmental Defense Fund. "Now we have remaining problems that are going to be tougher."
It's easier to control urban smog or reduce acid-producing chemicals from power plant smokestacks than it is to wean the world's energy economy away from fossil fuels, whose carbon dioxide emis-sions must be reduced to protect against possible global warm-ing.
How far and to what expense should society go to return land to pristine condition after it is contaminated by toxic wastes?
"That is a legitimate issue. How clean is clean?" says David Sive, who teaches environmental law at Pace University.
The thorniest environmental challenges of tomorrow also are likely to be global and at times may require action amid scientific uncertainties, as in the case of global warming, many scientists say.
Lester Brown, president of Worldwatch Institute, an environmental research group, says the folly of inaction was demonstrated in the collapse of the world's fisheries, where the warning signs were not heeded.
On the global environment, says Brown, "all the trends are headed in the wrong direction, and we've not succeeded in turning any of them around.