By Doug Draper
I can still hear the clinking of the empty pop cans as if it were yesterday.
But it wasn’t yesterday. It was 40 years ago this April 22 and those cans weren’t heading for a recycling bin. They were clinking off a chain-link fence between about four or five high school students (I was among them) and workers who were throwing them at a Union Carbide plant in Welland, Ontario – a plant that was, at that time, one of the most notorious air polluters in the region.
“Get out of here,” one of the workers yelled after another can was hurled against the fence. “Go back to school!”
It was April 22, 1970, the date of the very first Earth Day, observed around the world by millions of people, and my high school allowed the four or five of us out for the day to picket in front of this very-filthy Union Carbide plant that was, at the same time, part of a company that employed hundreds of people in our community.
By filthy, I mean that all the while I was growing up in Welland in the 50s and 60s, you could look over in the direction of this mill and see the clouds of brown smoke rolling out of Union Carbide’s huge stacks, and forming a streak of air-borne garbage that stretched across the horizon for as far as the eye could see.
So there we were, standing near the front gates of this factory with signs reading things like; “Beware of the air you breath,” and in my case; “If you aren’t part of the solution, you are part of the pollution.” And the cans kept clinking and taunts of “get out of here” kept coming.
Welcome to just one little slice of the world’s first Earth Day, Niagara style.
In the young, idealistic minds of the four or five of us who were out in front of that plant that day, we were at the vanguard of something. We were participating in the leading edge of a new environmental movement. We were doing a good thing for the earth and our community.
And it certainly seemed that way that while we were getting honks of support from people driving by. We thought we were also doing a good thing for the workers inside where, through big doors leading to the furnaces, we could see so much soot swirling through in the air, it looked like something out of Dante’s Inferno.
But when the workers emerged from the inferno with their lunch pails, they made it clear with the tossed cans and taunts that they didn’t see it that way. To them, we were just a bunch of young preppies heading off to college or university (which we were) where, if we had it our way and pressure was put on factories like this to clean up their act, the owners would sooner close them down and they would be out of a job.
Unfortunately, this is the choice many workers around the world still feel they face today, even on this continent. And if you don’t believe me, reconsider the coal mining disaster in West Virginia that killed 29 miners down in shafts that had been cited by government overseers for multiple safety infractions.
Just think past the propaganda of Canada’s federal government and the lame Liberals in opposition, that can’t seem to give us a plan or get their act together on any issue of importance to the country’s future, to the tar sands in Alberta where doctors have been harassed by the industry and the province for speaking out about health problems involving workers there. And no one other than (God bless them) ‘the usual suspects’ like David Suzuki, the Council of Canadians, Sierra Club and a hand full of others seem to care.
Let’s face it, our federal government and most Canadians really dig these tar sands, quite literally, as a global cash grab for the country, and if I was standing outsides of the gates of one of these tar pits this coming Earth Day, they would probably be throwing pop cans at us there.
Sorry if I put a bit of a damper on Earth Day because I know a lot of people like celebrating it (and that’s fine) by picking up some litter, maybe walking instead of driving their SUV to the corner store that day, etc., before going back to business as usual.
Unfortunately, Earth Day has become somewhat of a ‘Harmony Card’ event on the calendar – another day when everyone from teachers of students and others can all feel good about ourselves by saying a couple of nice things about protecting our environment maybe planting a tree or two to make up for the millions we keep destroying year after year for more low-density suburbs and all of those big-box malls surrounded by enough pavement to land jumbo jets on.
I went on from that first Earth Day in front of the Union Carbide plant to work as an environment reporter for a daily newspaper in the region. I started my years as an environment reporter writing about chemical waste disasters like the Love Canal, the polluting of the Niagara River, and went on to cover the aborted plans of a public corporation in Ontario to site a large hazardous waste dump in Niagara, the introduction of curbside recycling programs across the region, etc., etc.
I have always tried to write on environment issues with a determination to accomplish some public good. And last year, I can say with a bit of pride, the International Joint Commission (the official Canada-U.S. watchdog on Great Lakes pollution) presented me with a certificate for what it recognized as my “numerous contributions as environmental journalist and author in informing the public on environmental issues and problems in the Niagara River and surrounding region.”
That was nice but as far as Earth Day is concerned, I long ago came to the conclusion that every day should be Earth Day or don’t bother going on with Earth Day at all. To have more than half the population on this continent (according to recent polls) feeling that climate change – arguably the most serious environmental challenge we have this century – is some kind of a hoax or a joke doesn’t say much for how far we’ve come over the past 40 years.
That’s not to say that if that Union Carbide plant was still there, belching filth into the air the way it was then, I wouldn’t be back there with my old picket sign. I’d be there in a minute. Throw all the cans you want.
(Click on www.niagaraatlarge.com for Niagara At Large and more news and commentary on matters of interest and concern to our greater binational Niagara region.)
Bravo, Doug, for your unceasing efforts to make us all aware of environmental issues in our region and beyond. I totally agree with your premise, that considering the earth, our habitat, must become more than a once-yearly feel-good exercise. I do see signs of hope for the future — thanks to the hard work of teachers and educators and dedicated environmentalists, our children are far more knowledgeable about the natural world and aware of human threats to the environment than were my generation. The many Earth Day events around the region are a testament to those folks, like yourself, who dedicate their time and energy to spreading the word. Awareness IS growing — just not nearly fast enough.
Regarding Earth Day, this is a good moment to give a tribute to Mel Swart. Mel worked with many of the workers impacted by polluting activities, in their occupational health and safety struggles. In particular, he worked with the union of a carbide plant in Thorold- vigorously challenging cover ups of pollution at this plant- in which he was assisted quite well by Doug Draper.
It seems that in the late 1990s the entire cabide industry in Ontario was closed down. The reason for this was quite bizzare- it was a victim of the higher cost electricity caused by Ontario’s infactuation with nuclear power. Rate hikes were forced because of the folly of the Darlington nuclear plant.
As we lament the demise of the carbide industry, let us think of green ways that we can generate electricity. One of the most reasonable ways to do this is to encourage co-generation by industrial producers. If this had been done 40 years ago, at the time of the firest earth day, instead of embarking on more nuclear plants, we would still have a carbide industry in the province- albeit one that would become a lot greener than that displayed in the dramatic photos accompaying this article.
Great column Doug! And good for you, 40 years ago and today.
Doug Draper’s life-long ’cause’ shows a wise sense of priority. All the other ’causes’ pale before this one – the Earth. NHS’s depredation of our Medicare is important and human rights in general are way up there, but the water we drink, the air we breath and the land under our feet and its foliage come first. This seems so sensible that to say it sounds trite. I guess almost all of us have an ‘entitlement’ attitude when it comes to what is always just beneath our immediate awareness. Doug, please try to figure out a way of drawing the Earth to our awareness every day. Or would that be too intrusive for most of us?
Thanks for the reminder, Doug.
We had similar experiences with the ‘Clean Air Committee’ when we went door-to-door with petitions asking Union Carbide to convert their refuse going out the stacks to useful (and profitable!) purposes.
I knew that when I went to a Union Carbide worker’s home I would be refused a signature, often regretfully and sometimes guiltily so I nearly passed by one home, but decided to knock on the door anyway.
To my surprise the man readily signed, and so I said, “I want to thank you for that. Most people who work at UC don’t sign because of fear of lsoing their jobs. Can I ask you why you did?” – to which he replied, “Well, I don’t see it that way. I always have a chance of getting another job but I can never get my health back.”
Also on that campaign I met a metallurgist who quite sensibly never gave me his name but who pointed out that the stuff being shot out over the community contained much valuable material. However the return on the investment would be delayed for maybe ten years, and those making the decisions wanted immediate returns.
(On top of that, he ruminated that those making the decisions were probably residing in New York – where they were perhaps members of pollution control committees there.)
Not too long after that experience I had a phone call from a nurse at the hospital who was crying – another resident of Industrial Park had been brought into the hopsital with cancer. She maintained that the percentage of cancer cases downwind from Union Carbide was much higher than in other parts of the city.
I think the solution lies in conversion – as in the peace movement when we began to make some progress by emphasizing converting weapons of war to peaceful purposes – involving the workers in decision-making regarding alternative forms of production.
Thanks again for your great article! – and HAPPY EARTHDAY! – EVERY DAY – in anticipation.
Hey Doug – from the very first time we met, I understood that you were a person and a journalist of integrity. Not often one finds this characteristic in either. Keep up the good work for the environment that we all share.