The first Earth Day in 1970 came a little less than a year after the Cuyahoga River in Ohio caught fire because it was so heavily polluted by industry – an event often credited with raising the national consciousness on environmental issues.

It’s amazing how far the country has come in the 29 years since, passing the Clean Air and Clean Water acts in the 1970s, which placed restrictions on industry that have lead to significant reductions in some of the most common pollutants in our air and water, such as carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide and lead. Today, most people are not only aware of recycling, household energy conservation and fuel efficiency, but also recognize they are necessary changes needed in their lives.

However, despite the significant progress that’s been made, the environmental problems that still exist remain some of the most daunting challenges of our time. While direct pollution into the water from large industrial plants has been reduced significantly, lakes and rivers continue to be threatened by a much more invisible type of pollution – runoff from a million different roofs, parking lots and other impervious surfaces where pollutants collect.

It’s pollution like this that’s led organizations like the Conservation Law Foundation to target Long Creek in South Portland as one of the most polluted waterways in the state. The organization is trying to get the state and federal government to force property owners, like the Maine Mall, to install systems that would filter pollutants out of runoff before they get to Long Creek, which ultimately empties into Casco Bay.

Much like our waterways, our air is still threatened by another pollutant that is invisible to most of us – carbon emissions that contribute to global warming. Although Maine might seem like a small part of a global problem, this state contributes more than its share. Almost 80 percent of households in this state rely on oil to heat their homes – more than any other state in the country. That means the average home in Maine emits more than 10 tons of carbon dioxide a year, and the state as whole is extremely vulnerable to rising energy costs.

While these problems might seem too great for any one person to solve, if anything has changed in the last 29 years, it’s our perception of what poses the greatest threat to the environment. It’s no longer the factory across town. It’s the cars we drive, the way we heat our homes, the chemicals we put on our lawns and the plastic bags we carry home from the grocery store. Each of us owns a piece of the problem and the solution.

That’s why we would urge readers to mark what is now Earth Week this year by doing one thing. It could be a small thing, like switching from plastic bags to reusable canvas bags or to more energy efficient light bulbs. It could be volunteering at a local cleanup, such as the ones occurring this weekend at Scarborough Marsh, or participating in the Green is Cool walk in downtown Saco Saturday. It could be writing to a local legislator or member of Congress to urge them to support investments in alternative forms of energy.

Although the signs of environmental distress aren’t as visible as they were the day the Cuyahoga caught fire, the problems are no less present than they were 30 years ago. Their invisibility simply allows us to ignore them, if we choose to do so.

Brendan Moran, editor

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