Jackie Sartoris

Jackie Sartoris

Near my childhood home stood a farmhouse, clearly haunted. But rarer still in suburbanizing New Jersey: a tiny park, Walt Whitman’s beloved Crystal Spring.

That walk — holding hands, the normally forbidden intersection, the humid heat — remains etched in my memory. Finally, we were met by the coolness of shade and a silvery stream, a glimmer from the distant lake. Quiet. A virtual Eden, completely unlike my normal childhood habitat.

The wet path adorned with skunk cabbage quickly turned to deep, oozing mud. I jumped across some narrow place, closely followed by my little sister, only to land in a patch of putrid orange muck dissolving into slimy rivulets flowing with shreds of paper. I heard my father’s stern voice, “It’s not clean there! Come out!” Grabbing my sister’s hand, disgusted, we retreated, slipping in the mud, coated to the ankles. Silent, we sloshed home. Paradise lost. We never went back.

In the ’70s, environmental damage was undeniable. Throughout the tiny suburban lots, often wetland “reclaimed” with fill, septic system problems were routine. Towns often piped wastewater directly to the nearest waterway. Roads were paved feet from streams, brooks, and rivers that were choked with old tires and trash, and ubiquitous orange slicks of waste. Humid evenings, huge trucks crawled by, fumigating against mosquitoes. We could only watch, jealous, from the picture window, as the neighborhood kids pranced behind the ghostly fog. “Unleaded” was not a thing. Arrivals to grandparents in New York City were heralded by the stench and putrid billow of thick smog from the refineries below the Goethals Bridge.

Against this backdrop, with national concern heightened by Maine summer resident Rachel Carson, Maine’s Senator Ed Muskie pushed for change. EPA, Muskie’s remarkable legacy, finally began its work in the 1970s. While today’s Republican and Democratic parties share virtually no environmental common ground, the massive collaboration to clean up began under President Richard Nixon. From 1971 to 1977, photographers with EPA’s “Documerica” program catalogued the distressed state of the nation, creating a fascinating and repellent time capsule of brown trash-lined rivers, smog-filled skies, workers coated in hazards, children playing in filthy water.

Billions of federal dollars flowed to construct sewage treatment plants. Routine spraying of toxins and exposure for workers to lifethreatening hazards receded. Endangered species and habitats pulled from the brink of extinction. Yet even as visible and immediate threats were reduced, scientists warned of less obvious impacts threatening the very wellbeing of the planet. Habitat destruction and climate change pose greater challenges still, demanding greater attention, funding, and response.

For 40 years, the work of balancing the public interest against unrelenting pressure from those with money to make was respected by both political parties, albeit grudgingly, as an essential check on greed. When Tea Party favorites won nationally in 2010, this changed overnight.

In Maine, Gov. LePage immediately sent out the message to our executive branch agencies to reduce enforcement against environmental violations, preferring “opportunities for education.” Agencies were disbanded or shrunk, respected professionals forced out. By 2011, the shift was palpable, with local Code Enforcement Officers quietly bemoaning that Maine DEP’s reticence to apply its own rules increased local impacts from development. Rules were frequently interpreted to benefit economic interests, according to interviews conducted with dozens of local officials from 2011- 2012. Nothing seems more important to our Governor than a leg up for business in the name of “jobs,” even if it means damaging the long term interests and future economy for all Mainers. For years, the presence of federal agencies served as a comforting bulwark against the worst ravages of LePage.

Enter Trump. The selection of Scott Pruitt to head EPA, a man who’s dedicated his professional career to suing the agency, broadcasts disdain for the legacy of Rachel Carson and Senator Muskie. Confirmation came last week, when White House counselor Steve Bannon — surely destined for Dante’s 8th Circle of Hell — announced that Pruitt was “selected for a reason, and that is deconstruction.” In fact, Consigliere Bannon says, “deconstruction of the administrative state.” Trump’s budget is anticipated to gut environmental protection.

The need to protect human health and our environment was not dreamed up by effete policy wonks looking to make life hard for the private sector. Protecting us and our children from the natural consequences of unregulated greed is the basic responsibility of government, established through hard experience. We have been here. We have learned this.

During Pruitt’s confirmation Feb. 17, I stepped outside toward the neighborhood trails. Flushing from the chokecherry, an enormous shadow swooped just overhead: a bald eagle. I remembered Whitman. “After you have exhausted what there is in business, politics, conviviality, and so on — have found that none of these finally satisfy, or permanently wear — what remains? Nature remains.”

What will remain is very much at risk.

Jackie Sartoris is a former Brunswick Town Councilor.

Comments are not available on this story.