More than 100,000 Americans marked the silver anniversary of Earth Day in the shadow of the Capitol on Saturday, protesting what they fear will be a broad rollback of environmental protection laws.
“Today I can tell you what the largest threat to our environment is, and it’s right behind me - the U.S. Congress,” Robert Kennedy Jr., an attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, told a rally on the National Mall. “They’re literally dismantling 25 years of environmental progress.”
Congress has passed 28 major environmental laws, including the Clean Air and Clean Water acts, since the first Earth Day in 1970.
But environmentalists say the new Republicanled Congress is quickly - and stealthily - revoking that protection, and spent the 25th Earth Day urging Americans to fight back. Organizers hoped to collect millions of signatures on an “Environmental Bill of Rights” petition to present to Congress on July 4.
“Let them know up there that we still care,” actor LeVar Burton of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” told the cheering crowd, estimated by U.S. Park Police at 125,000. “Don’t turn back the clock on the environment.”
That message reverberated at Earth Day events nationwide.
“The joke around here is that the 25th anniversary should be more of a wake than a celebration,” said Rudy Lukez, chairman of Utah’s Sierra Club.
But in Tumwater, Wash., more than 100 timber workers spent Earth Day asking lawmakers to cut the Endangered Species Act, which restricts logging on lands that are home to certain protected species of plants and animals.
“It is a cruel, vicious and unrelenting law,” said Barbara Mossman of Forks, Wash., who said the decline in timber production killed her family’s log trucking business. “The most degrading and humiliating thing we had to do is ask for a voucher for food because we were hungry.”
The act is “broken and needs to be fixed,” agreed U.S. Rep. Jennifer Dunn, R-Wash., who held the “timber family” hearing with fellow Republicans Sen. Slade Gorton and Rep. Linda Smith.
Elsewhere, more than 3,000 volunteers spent the day cleaning up illegal dumps in Oregon and hundreds of Californians picked up trash in Malibu, which was devastated by winter storms that caused flooding and mudslides. In Anaheim, Calif., the first 40,000 visitors to Disneyland got free Earth Day buttons, made of recycled material and featuring Disney characters carpooling.
In New Jersey, Bell Atlantic Mobile unveiled a national recycling program, where cellular phone users can turn used phone batteries in to Bell Atlantic phone stores. The batteries will be recycled and consumers will get a store coupon good for 10 percent off their next battery purchase.
In Philadelphia, high school students recycled garbage into a sculpture of a boy fishing from a commode. “We call it ‘Don’t Flush Our Future,’ because we say the Earth is going down the toilet,” said Mike Leitmeyer, 16, who designed the piece with Robert Sieger, 17.
About 80,000 people attended a six-hour Earth Day concert in Boston, where solar-powered cars and appliances were displayed. In New York, 3,000 turned out to see marchers costumed as fish and trees in the “Parade for the Planet,” and another 2,000 raised $70,000 for city parks in a Central Park race.
Of concern to environmentalists are Housepassed bills that would reimburse industry for the cost of certain environmental regulations and require the benefits of new protections to outweigh the costs. Also, landowners would be paid for property value losses resulting from environmental laws.
Business leaders say environmental laws are too restrictive and that the congressional proposals mark a long overdue move away from extremism. The property-rights bill in particular was prompted by landowners who said such laws as the Endangered Species Act limit the use of their land.
“We want the right to clean air, which is our property, and the right to clean water, which is our property,” countered Kennedy. “They’re talking about the right to pollute.”