April 19th, 2010

40 Years of Earth Day

From Annette Russo, Manager, Communications and Training, WWEHS, Johnson & Johnson

Like twenty million other Americans, I was part of the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970. I heeded the call for a day of protest and education, and did a small thing to improve the environment. Looking back, I think my Earth Day experiences parallel the history of the day itself. As I eventually became a consultant and groundwater geologist, I understood the reasons for the growing number of environmental regulations. I became part of a growing cadre of environmental professionals trained to address environmental compliance and remediation. We learned to use environmental management systems as a tool for better environmental management.

And today, people take a holistic view of the environment – looking at the products companies make as well as the places where they make them while considering social and economic impacts alongside environmental ones. Many call this “sustainability”, and it has changed the way business gets done. 

It’s Earth Day 1970…I’m standing waist deep in a cold, spring-fed creek in my hometown pushing a wire box filled with heavy rock down into the mud of the creek bed. We’re trying to save the creek. The city moved it a few months earlier to build a new road, leaving a bed that was wide and shallow. Our wire boxes force the water to the center of the bed, deepening it, lowering the water temperature, and hopefully, saving the native trout.

Earth Day 1975…I’m standing with my class on a hillside overlooking what can only be described as a barren moonscape on the opposite ridge. Its cause is apparent in the valley below – plumes of grayish smoke from a zinc smelting facility. Our teacher is telling us that nothing has grown or can grow on the ridge – all because of the zinc in the smoke. 

Earth Day 1985…I’m collecting soil samples at a chemical plant near my home. The soil is contaminated with DDT, a pesticide banned in 1972, but made at the plant in the 1940s. The samples smell like ant killer, and we still haven’t found where the contamination ends. 

Earth Day 1990…I’m spending a week at a plant on the US/Mexican border where the first compact fluorescent lights (CFLs) are being made. Environmental regulations are new in the border zone, and my company wants to be an environmental leader there. At the same time, we’re hoping that the CFLs will catch on. We know that they last longer and save energy, but we’re not sure that consumers will like the light quality and their twisty shape.

Earth Day 1995…I’m in my yard planting a Dawn Redwood to commemorate the 25th anniversary of Earth Day. The redwood is 4 feet tall and a bit spindly, but I think it’s beautiful.

Earth Day 2010…I’m working on sustainability both here at J&J and in my personal life. The Dawn Redwood that I planted in my yard 15 years ago is now over 70 feet tall and has a beautiful, sculptural trunk about 3 feet wide. The CFLs that my then employer hoped would catch on in 1990 are now recognized as one of the lowest environmental impact lighting options. The soil cleanup that I worked on at the chemical plant was completed in the 1990s, but groundwater testing still continues. The moonscape hillside I saw in 1975 became a Superfund site in 1983, along with the entire town that surrounded the zinc smelter. It is still being remediated in 2010. And finally, the creek that I helped to save in 1970 is a deep, clear stream. Based on what I saw in the fishermen’s baskets on opening day last week, the trout are doing just fine.

6 Responses to “40 Years of Earth Day”

  1. B.L. says

    This article is really great and inspiring. Thank you so much for sharing- I used to work with the Division of Environmental Health for the FDOH, and this article makes you sincerely feel like one person can make a real difference. I really love this blog!

  2. David Meskers says

    I thoroughly enjoyed this article. Providing present day follow-ups to the author’s earlier environmental initiatives was inspiring. Good examples of how small groups of people acting locally can have a positive global impact.

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