Right near the edge of the country with the great lakes and the awesome power of Niagara Falls, where the “thunders live,” I got to hear Jill Jedlicka the Buffalo Niagra Waterkeeper speak. She was asked to tell a story that might make us cry, and her story came close to doing it for me. She spoke of Stan Spisiak, a man I had never heard of, but now will never forget, her uncle.
Stan was born in 1916, fifteenth child of sixteen, son of Polish immigrants. He grew up near a small tributary about 10 miles from the mouth of the Buffalo River. As a fisherman he knew that river and saw it change as it was loaded from unregulated sewer systems and industrial waste and deemed dead by the 1960’s.
The speaker remembered hearing stories of the times Stan would come home beat up because he was speaking out for the environment, for the rivers he loved to fish. But in an industrial city, the home of the once powerful Bethlehem Steel Corporation and the thousands it employed, speaking out could be hazardous to your health, as he often found out.
He spoke out about his whole watershed, the Buffalo, Niagara and Lake Erie for decades and made it better, receiving the “Water Conservationist of the Year” award from the National Wildlife Foundation in 1966. It was there that he met Claudia Alta Taylor, known to America as Lady Bird Johnson, a lifelong advocate of beautifying our country’s cities and highways, who was known by her motto, “Where flowers bloom, so does hope.” Stan invited her to tour his watershed and when she came, she brought her husband, Lyndon Johnson, then President of the United States, New York’s Governor Nelson Rockefeller and others.
During that visit Stan showed the president a bucket of sludge from the Buffalo River and LBJ told him simply, “Don't worry. I'll take care of it.” And he did when two weeks later President Johnson signed an Executive Order banning open-water placement of polluted dredged sediment in Lake Erie, a restriction still enforced today. The Army Corps of Engineers then built Confined Disposal Facilities throughout the Great Lakes to hold polluted sediment dredged from the waters.
One man made a difference by speaking out to a person who had the power to change policies. We have to remember the power each of us hold, to speak out about our watershed and keep saying we want it better. You too could be instrumental in changing our national environmental policy.
Forty-six years ago the Clean Water Act was enacted with goals of eliminating releases of high amounts of toxic substances into water and eliminating additional water pollution. The Clean Water Act, Section 404, gives the Army Corps of Engineers the jurisdiction over discharge of dredged or fill material in the waters of the United States. The Clean Water Act might be used more efficiently if we nudged persons in power to use those powers.
I came to the annual Waterkeeper Alliance Conference in Buffalo, New York and will share information on the federal policy that has controlled the actions on cleanup at the Tar Creek Superfund Site and other superfund sites around the country. I came to find the place that birthed the need for it, Love Canal.
William T. Love came to the Niagara Falls area in the 1890’s with the vision of a huge city powered by hydropower created by the water from a canal he began construction of that would send water through his city. Part of the canal was built, but not the city since locals refused to allow him to divert the water from the rivers. The city of Niagara Falls bought that property in 1920, used it to store chemical waste, sold it to Hooker chemical company which used it until it was full in 1953. It was capped with clay and covered, sold back to the city for $1 and a school and neighborhood of 100 homes built upon it.
Chemicals surfaced, children got sick. And a mother named Lois Gibbs organized neighbors and got national attention which resulted with the creation of the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, known as the ‘Superfund’ law. It would collect taxes from gas and chemical corporations to be used directly to clean up any sites similar to the Love Canal.
This worked until Congress failed to re-authorize the “polluter pays fees” in 1995. The Superfund now requires much of our taxes to do her work.
So here at the Waterkeeper Alliance Conference this is a message I will leave. Put the FUND back in Superfund, and tell Congress to make Superfund Great Again.
This place birthed environmental activists who inspired policies we still use today. Being in the presence of over 300 fellow Waterkeepers attending together, with our minds drawn together as one is indescribable.
Respectfully Shuffling ~ Rebecca Jim
"Shuffle Off to Buffalo" is a song written by Al Dubin and Harry Warren